BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s Information Minister said on Tuesday the Syrian people have decided President Bashar al-Assad should be nominated for another term and would pressure him to stand in elections this year.
The comments were the strongest indication yet that Assad intends to extend his rule and are sure to anger opposition politicians and fighters who have been waging a nearly three-year struggle to end his rule.
Assad’s status in any future political order in Syria has been a stumbling block to bringing both sides to a peace conference scheduled to be held in Geneva on January 22.
The opposition, represented by a Western-backed coalition, has demanded that the conference aim to remove Assad from power, while Damascus has insisted that he stay.
In a televised press conference, Information Minister Omran Zoabi said Assad’s decision was personal and had not been announced yet, but that the “Syrian street” wanted him to run.
“I can assure you that there is a popular Syrian decision to nominate President Bashar al-Assad for the presidency of the republic,” he said.
“It is his personal decision, which concerns him personally, but I also assure you that the Syrian street will pressure President Bashar al-Assad to nominate himself for the presidency of the republic.”
Last month, a Russian diplomat signaled Assad should refrain from statements suggesting he might seek re-election because it could fuel tension before the planned peace talks. Moscow has been a vital ally to the Syrian president.
Zoabi also restated the government’s position that any agreement reached at the Geneva conference - known as “Geneva 2” - would need to be approved by a referendum or it would not be valid.
He called on Turkey to close its border with Syria and expel fighters from its territory and said the government wanted Iran to attend the talks.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Sunni powers including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed rival sides in Syria’s civil war. Foreign fighters have slipped into northern Syria from Turkey, where they have captured swathes of territory from the government.
Separately on Tuesday, Iranian media reported that Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran would not accept any preconditions for participating in the Geneva talks.
“If we get invited officially then we will take part at the meeting,” he said during a meeting with visiting Syrian deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad, according to the report.
Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus MacSwan