BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad declared Monday that he would seek re-election in June, defying calls from his opponents to step aside and allow a political solution to the country’s devastating civil war.
On the ground, regime troops and paramilitary allies launched an offensive against the eastern neighborhood of Jobar and the suburb of Mliha, part of a concerted campaign to retake as much territory as possible in Greater Damascus in the run-up to the election.
Several dozen barrel bombs were dropped on the city and province of Aleppo, according to local activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but it appeared that many of them fell in the Sheikh Najjar region, where fierce fighting was taking place, rather than in civilian neighborhoods.
The Observatory said regime troops were advancing in Sheikh Najjar, although parts of Aleppo have been changing hands with great frequency in recent weeks, as both the regime and the rebels try to gain an edge.
Following an apparent agreement between the regime and the rebels in Aleppo, electricity and water supplies began to return to loyalist-held areas. Opposition forces in the city, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, had switched off the supplies 10 days ago, in an attempt to halt regime barrel bomb attacks on rebel-held areas.
One day after regime troops and allies re-took the coastal village of Samra in northern Latakia province, fierce clashes with rebels continued in several nearby locations, including the Armenian town of Kasab.
Assad formally submitted his nomination to Syria’s Constitutional Court to stand in an election that his Western and Arab foes have dismissed as a “parody” of democracy.
He is the seventh person to put himself forward for Syria’s first multi-candidate presidential vote in decades, but none of his rivals are expected to mount a serious challenge to 44 years of Assad family rule.
The announcement was made in parliament by speaker Mohammad al-Laham, who read out Assad’s submission. “I ... Dr. Bashar Hafez Assad ... wish to nominate myself for the post of president of the republic, hoping that parliament will endorse it,” it said.
State media said crowds gathered to celebrate the coming election and recent military gains by Assad’s forces who, supported by foreign allies, have turned the tide of a war which 18 months ago challenged their control over Damascus.
“As soon as we heard that the president announced his candidacy we came down to the streets to celebrate because we cannot see any future Syria without his excellency President Bashar Assad,” said Khadija Hashma, one of about 100 people demonstrating in the central Damascus district of Mazzeh.
In a statement minutes after his candidacy was announced, Assad appealed for restraint and said any “demonstration of joy” should be responsible, urging people not to fire celebratory shots in the air.
Syria’s exiled opposition leaders, barred from standing by a constitutional clause requiring candidates to have lived in Syria continuously for at least 10 years, dismissed the vote as a charade.
The constitution also says candidates must have the backing of 35 members of the pro-Assad parliament, effectively ruling out dissenting voices from the campaign.
The National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition umbrella group in exile, said Assad’s determination to win another term in office showed he was not interested in a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
“From the start this regime is illegitimate, and so is this action,” said Hadi Bahra, a member of the coalition’s political committee.
“This has no value, but says that the regime is not serious about a political solution.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, at the end of his Asia tour, defended his administration’s response to the Syria crisis.
“I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops.’ Well, what do you mean? ‘Well, you should be assisting the opposition.’ Well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? ‘Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.’ Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off.”
France, a strong supporter of the opposition, described Assad’s candidacy and the election as “a tragic absurdity and parody.”
“No legitimacy could come out of this phantom election in a devastated country,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal.
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, Martin Schaefer, said that, given the war, “it’s completely impossible to ask the Syrian people about their political wishes.”
Election commission head Hisham al-Shaar was Monday quoted by Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper as saying Syrians who had left the country illegally would not be eligible to vote. More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict.