DAMASCUS, Syria -- You would not know it from talking to people in Damascus, but the government has now confirmed that the presidential elections are proceeding in Syria. Candidates have until May 1 to nominate themselves, and so far two contenders have come forward to challenge President Bashar al-Assad, who is yet to announce his candidacy though he is expected to run and win in what will be the first actual electoral process in 44 years. Until now, elections in Syria have been referendums.
But this is Syria in the fourth year of a civil war. The conflict is at a stalemate, and allegations are growing of new chemical-weapon attacks against civilians. The upcoming election, everybody here knows it, is a sham.
Election day has been scheduled for June 3. But even government loyalists are dismissing it as pure theatrics.
“Yes, yes, we know Assad is going to win. Let’s skip over this film. What I want to know is when will this war be over? When will my life get back to normal again?” said Ayman, a self-professed government supporter who withheld his last name. He currently works as a driver after he shut down his once-thriving clothing shop for lack of business.
Another Damascene, Wael, a supporter of the opposition who also withheld his last name for fear of government retribution, echoed a similar sentiment. “We all know it’s meaningless. Assad is holding so-called elections and he’s going to win. I don’t know whether he knows that he’s only fooling himself,” he said.
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In the city streets, there were hardly any signs of an upcoming election aside from government-orchestrated events. Every few days, the authorities bus people in from loyalist areas to march through the capital in a show of support for the government. Public schools have also been routinely canceling classes in order to take students out to march, often without parental consent.
Months ago, the authorities compelled shop owners to paint their shutters with the colors of the flag to show patriotic enthusiasm. Officials in staunchly loyalist areas also began campaigning to call on Assad to nominate himself, even though an election had not officially been called.
The two men who have so far announced their candidacy for president are Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri. They will each require the signatures of 35 parliamentarians to qualify to run.
Hajjar, 43, is a longtime Communist from Aleppo, who in 2012 won a seat in parliament under the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, a government-sanctioned opposition party that he founded.
Nouri, a 54-year old father of five, is a government official who has served in various capacities for the past 20 years. He is currently the head of Syria’s National Initiative for Administration and Change, which was established in the hope of defusing growing violence after the uprising in Syria began in 2011. He holds a doctorate degree in human resources from John F. Kennedy University in California, according to a statement by Sana, Syria’s official news agency.
This year’s election will be the first non-referendum election since 1970, when Assad’s late father, Hafez, first came to power in a military coup. Under a new constitution drafted two years ago, presidential elections must be held every seven years with at least one challenger.
A few months ago, the government amended the constitution, requiring nominees for the presidency to be current residents of Syria, in effect disqualifying all exiled opposition figures. Also disqualified are people who are married to non-Syrians, which incidentally includes president Assad, whose British-born wife Asma holds UK nationality. The Syrian government has not formally addressed this issue, but no one expects that Assad will be barred from running. After all, he is the man who won "election" in 2000 with a 97 percent landslide in a referendum on whether he should be president, and won again in 2007.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and France have said there was mounting evidence that the Syrian government has used poisonous gas on civilians in rebel-held areas. Numerous videos surfaced online of chlorine canisters, some unexploded, apparently delivered in barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters. The UN Security Council has called an emergency meeting to address the allegations, which the Syrian government categorically blames on the rebels.
Also, the humanitarian needs of millions of Syrians continue to go unmet.
The government continues to deliberately cut off an estimated quarter of a million civilians from food and medicine, in what the UN calls a “flagrant violation of the basic principles of international law.” The opposition also currently has under siege some 45,000 civilians who happen to be in loyalist pockets within rebel-controlled areas.
Around Damascus, the rebels have escalated violence by targeting the center of the capital with mortar attacks, causing dozens of civilian deaths and injuries. Earlier this month, a mortar round fell onto an elementary school in the ancient city, killing several children and injuring dozens.
Clashes have intensified elsewhere in Syria, including the embattled city of Homs, where several hundred rebels besieged inside the old city recently ambushed a government checkpoint, killing several state security men. Bracing for the government’s fierce reaction, the rebels have been calling on their compatriots to “help at least with blocking roads and preventing the government from using them,” according to statements published on social media.
In Aleppo, rebels made a strong push into government-controlled territory in fierce clashes that have resulted in the abrupt cancellation of ground and air transportation into Syria’s largest city.
Along the coast, which is home to the Assad clan and the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs, unprecedented clashes have the locals worried. Having previously felt protected and invincible, many now admit that the threat of rebels breaching the government-controlled area has never been higher.
For the first time, hundreds of Alawite civilians have been displaced from their home villages due to the fierce coastal battles to the north, and are seeking shelter in designated school buildings in the port city of Lattakia. While the Alawite community remains tight-lipped with outsiders about any changes in its political sentiment, insiders say there is growing dissent against the Assad government for what is perceived as an unnecessarily prolonged and devastating war, leaving most Alawite families bereaved after losing their sons in the fighting.
The ongoing battles there have also created a mood so tense that any outsider to the coast is immediately spotted and interrogated by government security men, most of whom hail from local Alawite villages. Uniformed men speaking with Lebanese accents and wearing religious insignia on their camouflage were also seen fraternizing with Syrian security. Locals identify the Lebanese men as Shia Muslim “volunteers” who have aligned themselves with the Assad government and the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
During a recent trip to the Syrian coast, sectarian tensions seemed at an all-time high. Armed government guards scrutinized civilians’ ID cards for clues of political orientation, which in the guards’ minds is an amalgamation of sect and place of origin. Civilians who hail from rebellious areas, especially young men, run the risk of being presumed rebels and detained immediately, sometimes never to be heard from again.
Back in Damascus, staunch government loyalists occasionally express their sentiments in public, seemingly aware they are a minority among an increasingly fatigued and indifferent city. On a recent night in one night club in the city center, a few female patrons jumped on tables and danced, chanting pro-Assad songs in unison.
Later, a group of Damascenes were asked if they thought that Assad has already won the war.
“He has won, but only by surviving this long. The big losers are us, the people, and Syria, our beautiful country,” one man said.