BEIRUT

Middle East

Pre-election fever starts to sweep Damascus

Syrians display national flags and banners with photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a pro-government event in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT: The Syrian regime and loyalists have ramped up displays of nationalist propaganda in the capital Damascus as this month’s Geneva II peace talks got off to a rocky start, floundering over the question of the fate of President Bashar Assad.

The government and the opposition, which finally met in Switzerland, were at loggerheads over the issue of Assad’s role in any future government. The opposition insists the only topic at the talks should be his departure, while government representatives say Assad’s rule is not up for discussion and insist he will run in elections, currently scheduled for March 2014.

The topic of the president’s candidacy is usually treated as a red line inside Syria. But with the presidency now being questioned publicly for the first time, both supporters and opponents of Assad say efforts are now being stepped up in what appears to be a campaign to demonstrate support at home.

Residents have told The Daily Star nearly all shop fronts in government-held areas of Damascus have been painted with the country’s red, white and black flag.

Both pro- and anti- Assad civilians said security forces were coercing shop owners to paint their doors.

“They have been told to paint their shops with the Syrian flag,” said Yasser, an Assad supporter.

“They have been told. No one forces them or arrests them for not doing it, but I don’t think anyone would not do it,” he said.

“It only started to happen in the last two weeks.”

According to Leena al-Shami, an opposition activist in Geneva who only recently fled Syria:

“If you go to the market now, all the shops are painted.

“My friends in Syria are really upset about this.”

Government buses have also been painted with the flag, Yasser said.

New displays of pro-government support have begun to emerge in ways not seen since pro-Assad rallies, in which supporters numbered in their tens of thousands, ceased in mid-2012.

Well-known to Damascenes is the sight of two Humvees, adorned with the president’s portrait and the flag, waving banners and blaring patriotic songs in support of the president from loudspeakers, driving around Assad loyalist areas and government-held neighborhoods. Now, the number of cars blasting nationalist and pro-Assad songs or draped in the flag has increased in the upscale neighborhoods of Mezzeh, Malki and Abu Rummaneh.

Songs such as “Bashar, We Are Your Men” by Ammar al-Dik have been revived, while new jingles, specifically written about Geneva, have begun to circulate.

“The voice of right and justice is conveying [the message] of freedom,” one song puts it, referring to the opening address in the Switzerland talks by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

“You’ve given Jarba scabies for the rest of his life,” it continues, in reference to the opposition National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba, in a play on words with the Arabic word for “scabies” in Arabic, “jarab.”

Yasser said while state and official media still do not broach the subject of the president’s popularity directly, new Facebook groups mean the issue has begun to be discussed openly.

“In the media there is no campaign at all. They are not talking about the elections whatsoever. All they say is the president is a red line and no one will talk about his future, whether he will run for election or not.”

In an interview with the Associated Press last week, presidential adviser Bouthaina Shabaan in Geneva indicated for the first time that presidential elections may not go ahead as planned. “It’s very difficult to imagine how presidential elections could be conducted in such an atmosphere.”

But Yasser was confident.

“The election will take place in March, so it is a matter of few weeks and everything will be clear because until now, no one is saying: ‘I’ll run for election even if he will run, to show we have another candidate,’” he said.

“If Bashar runs for election, yes, I’ll vote for him.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 01, 2014, on page 10.

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