DAMASCUS - President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to stand in the 2014 election like any other candidate and it is up to the Syrians themselves to decide their future leadership, a senior official has said.
"We are opening the way for democracy, or deeper democracy. In a democracy you don't tell somebody not to run," said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad in an interview with the BBC on Monday.
A plan to end Syria's civil war, agreed in Geneva in June during talks among global powers and the UN, envisages the establishment of a transitional government but it does not refer to Assad going -- a key demand of the opposition.
Muqdad's remarks come after Assad unveiled in a rare speech on January 5 in Damascus his own three-step peace initiative for the strife-torn country.
He offered dialogue with the opposition to end the conflict -- but only with elements he deemed acceptable, not rebel-affiliated groups he termed "killers" and "terrorists" manipulated by foreign powers.
His plan was rejected outright by the entire opposition as well as by the West, and it was criticised heavily by UN-Arab League peace envoy Brahimi who termed it "perhaps even more sectarian, more one-sided" than previous such initiatives.
In Monday's interview, Muqdad reiterated Damascus' long-held view that calls for Assad to quit immediately are foreign-backed and illegitimate.
"It is a coup d'etat if we listen what to those armed groups and those elements of Syria are proposing," said Muqdad.
"The president now and many other candidates who may run will go to the people, put their programmes and be elected by the people," Muqdad told the BBC.
"So the ballot box will be the place where the future of the leadership of Syria will be decided."
The United Nations says that more than 60,000 people have died in the Syria conflict which began 22 months ago, on March 15, 2011, with peaceful protests that quickly erupted into deadly violence in the wake of a harsh regime crackdown.