(Bloomberg) -- Russia described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a popular leader who has every chance to win re-election, welcoming a thaw in ties between his once-pariah regime and Arab nations.
“He’s fairly popular, if he wasn’t, the results of the last few years would have been different,” President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, said in an interview in Moscow this week. “Of course, I think so,” he added, when asked whether the Syrian leader can triumph in the next presidential vote.
Work is scheduled to start early next year on a new constitution for Syria ahead of UN-supervised elections. Assad won a presidential term in 2014 that will end in 2021. After almost seven years of civil war, the Syrian government is stepping up control of the country, with the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces expected to hand back a key oil-rich region to the central authorities.
Russia expects the Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, to readmit the country, said Bogdanov, who is also deputy foreign minister.
“Many Arab countries have understood that this decision wasn’t thought through and even counterproductive,” he said. “It’s very important for the Syrians and Arabs to re-establish ties.”
Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir last week made the first visit by an Arab leader to Damascus since the revolt against Assad’s rule began in 2011, traveling on a Russian plane, Bogdanov said. That trip followed a friendly greeting between the foreign ministers of Syria and Bahrain at the United Nations in New York in September. On Thursday, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus that had been closed since 2011. Bahrain will reopen its mission as soon as next week, Russia’s state-run Sputnik news service reported.
Turkey, which for years has demanded Assad’s ouster, said earlier this month it would consider working with the Syrian leader if he won a democratic vote.
“These are very important developments and we welcome them,” said Bogdanov.
The senior Russian diplomat downplayed concerns about the growing role of Iran in Syria, saying that Iranian-backed forces would leave the country once the government re-establishes full control of all territory.
“If Syrian sovereignty and territorial unity is re-established then there will be no reason for them to be there,” he said, referring to pro-Iran militias and Iranian military forces.
Russia is also ready to mediate between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds in the northeast who have been under U.S. protection, to allow for the return of Syrian government troops and the eventual withdrawal of Turkish forces, Bogdanov said.
(Updates with embassy re-openings in 6th paragraph.)
--With assistance from Shaji Mathew.
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