Bashar Assad sets stage to run for president amid war

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad is quietly preparing the ground to hold elections by early this summer to win another 7-year term, even as the Syrian conflict rampages into its fourth year with large parts of the country either in ruins or under opposition control and nearly a third of the population scattered by civil war.

Amid the destruction, which has left more than 140,000 dead, presidential elections may seem impossible. But Syrian officials insist they will be held on time.

The election is central to the Syrian government’s depiction of the conflict on the international stage.


At failed peace negotiations earlier this year in Geneva, Syrian officials categorically ruled out that Assad would step down in the face of the rebel uprising aimed at ousting him. Instead, they present the elections due at the end of Assad’s term as the solution to the crisis: If the people choose Assad in the election, the fight should end; if Assad loses, then he will leave.

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Observers say it would be preposterous to think a vote could reflect a real choice, and that Assad is certain to win. It would be impossible to hold polls in areas controlled by rebels. In areas under government control, many would not dare vote for anyone but Assad for fear of secret police who kept a close eye on past elections.

‘‘There is a gap between what goes on the mind of the Syrian president and reality. He has a fixation on the presidency and he doesn’t see beyond it,’’ said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

‘‘He can hold elections, and if the international community were to take these elections seriously then there is something really wrong in the international community,’’ he said.

In government-held areas, pro-Assad protesters recently began holding rallies in support of the armed forces, carrying Assad posters and Syrian flags.


Assad and his British-born wife, Asma, have emerged from months of seclusion, visiting with students and displaced people to infuse confidence in a war-wrecked nation.

As the fighting on the ground shifts, there is no telling how the battlefield will look by the summer. For now, Assad has reason to feel self-assured.

Backed by Shi’ite fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, Syrian troops have seized areas near Damascus and the central province of Homs that links the capital with Assad’s stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

Earlier this month, government forces recaptured two key rebel-held towns near the border with Lebanon. Troops also regained areas outside the city of Aleppo and secured its international airport, where flights resumed after a 15-month halt.

Underscoring the see-sawing war, rebels last week launched an offensive in Assad’s ancestral home in the coastal area of Latakia, capturing the last border crossing point with Turkey that was still under government control and several towns. A second cousin of Assad, Hilal Assad, died in the fighting. It remains unclear how much it represents a shift.


Saturday, Hezbollah fighters captured two villages near the border with Lebanon, continuing a weeks-long advance that has cut a major supply route for arms and fighters from eastern Lebanon, said activists.

‘‘This has been a great year for Assad,’’ said Fawaz Gerges, of the Middle East Center at London School of Economics.

‘‘His army has become an effective killing machine that has made major tactical gains all over Syria, controlling Syria’s cities and border area with Lebanon that is essential to his survival,’’ Gerges said.