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Syria's Assad allegedly open to elections, but only if he wins

DAMASCUS, Syria - President Bashar Assad is willing to run in an early presidential election, hold parliamentary elections and discuss constitutional changes, but only after the defeat of "terrorist" groups, Russian lawmakers said after meeting with the Syrian leader on Sunday.

The meeting came as Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey were discussing new ideas for a political transition in Syria to end the nearly five-year war, which has killed 250,000 people and displaced half the country's population.

The Western-backed Syrian opposition and other insurgent groups have refused to back any plan that does not include Assad's exit from power, and were unlikely to view any elections held by his government as legitimate. The Syrian government views the entire armed opposition as "terrorists" and has been waging an offensive on several fronts in recent weeks backed by Russian airstrikes.

Communist lawmaker Alexander Yushchenko told the Tass news agency that Assad is ready to hold parliamentary elections "on the basis of all political forces that want Syria's prosperity." He said Assad is also ready to discuss constitutional reform and, if necessary, hold presidential elections, but only "after the victory over terrorism."

Assad won re-election by a landslide in a vote held more than a year ago that was rejected by the armed opposition and its supporters. His term expires in 2021.

Sergei Gavrilov, another Communist lawmaker, told Tass that Assad was ready to hold parliamentary elections that included "reasonable, patriotic opposition forces." Parliament's term expires in May 2016.

The latest push for a diplomatic solution to the conflict comes in the wake of Russia's intervention, which Moscow says is aimed at helping the government defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other "terrorists."

But most of the airstrikes have focused on areas where ISIS militants do not have a major presence, and have enabled a multi-pronged government ground offensive backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group and Iran's Revolutionary Guard against other insurgent groups.

Assad told the Russian delegation that Moscow's entry into the conflict is "the writing of a new history" and will determine the future of the region and the world, Syria's state-run SANA news outlet said.

It quoted Assad as saying the eradication of terrorist groups would lead to a political solution that "pleases the Syrian people and maintains Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that his country is ready to aid the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in its fight against ISIS. The FSA is an amalgam of rebel groups, some headed by defectors from the Syrian army, and includes factions armed and trained by the CIA and others backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

FSA commander Lt. Col. Ahmed Saoud scoffed at the suggestion, saying "Russia must first admit that the regime of Assad must go."

"What we care about is Assad leaving, not turning this from a war against the regime to a war against terrorism," Saoud, a defected army officer who leads the 13th Division group, told The Associated Press. He added that Russia was still striking FSA positions.

On Sunday, the New-York based Human Rights Watch said at least two airstrikes on Oct. 15, described by residents as Russian, killed 59 civilians, including 33 children.

One of the airstrikes killed 46 family members, including 32 children and 12 women who were all related to a local commander affiliated with the FSA in the village of Ghantou, in the central Homs province. The second airstrike was in another town nearby, and killed 13 civilians and a local FSA commander when it hit near a bakery. It was not clear if the commander was the target, the group said.

HRW called on Moscow to investigate the attacks.

Moscow has invited the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey to coordinate their air campaigns, which target ISIS. But so far the U.S.-led coalition has refused to cooperate with Russia's operations beyond a basic agreement intended to prevent midair incidents. Jordan, a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has agreed to separately coordinate with Russia.

All previous peace efforts have foundered on the question of Assad's fate, with the government and its allies insisting that he remain in power to oversee a transition and the opposition and its backers insisting he must go in order to end the war.

The conflict began with a wave of mostly peaceful protests in 2011 against the Assad family's four-decade rule, and only escalated into a full-blown civil war when his forces launched a bloody crackdown on dissent.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia Saturday, where he met with King Salman, the crown prince and deputy crown prince. Following the meeting, the two sides "reiterated the need for a transition away" from Assad.

"They pledged to continue and intensify support to the moderate Syrian opposition while the political track is being pursued," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

Before visiting Riyadh, Kerry said he hoped some ideas that are surfacing "have a possibility of changing the dynamic," without elaborating.

In comments to the Saudi Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said the Kingdom insists there be no role for Assad in the future of Syria.

"We insist on an independent body to manage the transitional period in a way that guarantee the territorial integrity of Syria without Assad's presence; while Russia speaks of elections in search for a role for Assad," he said, in comments published Saturday.

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