DAMASCUS, Syria — Shoppers milled under a huge poster of the president in the Syrian capital’s ancient central market, its bustling streets newly crisscrossed with miniature flags ahead of an election. A few yards away in the majestic central Umayyad Mosque, where bands of protesters once chanted for freedom, the tone at Friday prayers was triumphant.
“All the plans of the West have been destroyed,” said the imam, Sheikh Maamoun Rahmeh, referring to U.S. support for Syrian rebels. “The Americans, among others, were stupid.” He implored worshipers to vote on June 3 for the most “qualified” person and ignore outside attempts to derail what he called Syrian democracy.
“Yes to the leader of this nation: Bashar al-Assad,” he declared. “Yes to the one who protected our blood.”
Much of the world has written off Syria’s upcoming presidential election as a parody. But the government is steaming toward the vote with defiance, portraying it as a cornerstone of a Syrian solution for a war it thinks has swung decisively in its favor. Assad will inevitably defeat his two little-known rivals to win a third seven-year term — a victory those who have fought him view as the end of hope for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
“We have to be realistic,” Anas Joudeh, vice president of Building the Syrian State, an internal opposition party that is boycotting the vote, said in his dim Damascus office during one of the city’s regular power cuts. “The opposition has failed, inside and out.”
The government is approaching the election bolstered by what it touts as a victory over rebel-held areas of central Homs, from which opposition fighters withdrew this month. It was a Pyrrhic win — the center of the city has been devastated by the war — but it is one the government is trying to replicate elsewhere.
On the streets of the Damascus city center, a semblance of normality has returned. In Al Midan neighborhood, where two years ago bodies lay in the streets as rebels made their deepest push into the capital, bullet-scarred shop shutters have been freshly daubed with the design of the Syrian flag. The mosques that once were the incubators of mass protests, and later were makeshift hospitals, have long been subdued.
For the first time, Assad’s campaign posters are joined on the streets by those of two other candidates. “Change is necessary,” boldly reads a poster for Maher Hajjar, a low-profile parliamentarian from Aleppo. Hassan al-Nouri, a businessman from a prominent Damascene family and a onetime government minister, concedes he has little chance of winning but describes the vote as “historic.”
“I'm taking myself very, very seriously,” he said, describing in an interview his plans for economic reform and anti-corruption measures.
But the two men’s participation has been derided by the opposition as nothing more than window dressing meant to perpetuate the charade of democracy. A restrictive electoral law, which among other stipulations requires candidates to receive the backing of 35 members of parliament, makes it impossible for anyone to run without government approval, critics say.
The low profiles of Assad’s election opponents have helped to underscore the government’s line that there is no alternative to the status quo.
“We don’t know anything about these candidates,” said Hisham Abu Taj, 60, a gold merchant in Damascus’s old city. “The first time I heard Hajjar’s name was when it was announced for the elections.”
Even if the election were an open field, millions of Syrians would be prevented from reaching the ballot box. Voting is out of the question for residents of rebel-held areas. Refugees who left Syria unofficially could not cast ballots when voting abroad took place Wednesday. And there are no plans for voting places outside the country except at Syrian embassies.
Government supporters brush off criticism that those obstacles will skew the outcome, claiming Assad also would win in any free and fair vote. The president has said he sees no reason not to hold an election as his constitutional mandate runs out.
“We are in the time of war — you can imagine how it’s difficult,” said Bassem Abu Abdallah, director of the Damascus Center for Strategic Studies, a political think tank close to the government. He asserted that most Syrians will still be able to vote.
Meanwhile, as Russia and the West face off over Ukraine, further internationally backed talks to resolve the Syrian conflict look ever more unlikely.
“Nowadays, things are going in the favor of Assad,” said Abu Abdallah, citing concerns about the rise of foreign extremist elements among the rebels, which has tempered international support for the opposition while raising fears among ordinary Syrians about alternatives to the government.
“After three and a half years, we don’t need Europe or the United States for anything; they need us,” Abu Abdallah said, citing Western security agencies’ outreach to Syrian authorities for information on foreign fighters.
Joudeh, of Building the Syrian State, recalled that special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who worked under the aegis of the United Nations and the Arab League, had once assured the group that he would stay in his post until every avenue for a solution was exhausted. Brahimi’s resignation this month, Joudeh said, was another bleak sign that the world is giving up on a negotiated solution for Syria.
He also conceded that the government’s narrative is winning out domestically.
“The regime wanted to lead the country to this place, to tell everyone that ‘I’m the only solution,’ ” he said. “Many people are now saying, ‘We need calm, we need security, we need bread.’ ”
The president’s election campaign videos show the joyous return of families to Baba Amr, a Homs neighborhood secured by government forces last year. In reality, it remains a near ghost town. Election regalia hangs along its battle-beaten streets.
“We will renew our loyalty for eternity,” reads an Assad sign at a checkpoint at an entry the neighborhood.
Still, although the government has made gains as sieges and airstrikes pummeled many areas into pacification, swaths of Syria remain in rebel hands. Bombs planted in tunnels have killed dozens of soldiers in the north as the government struggles to control neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital. An intermittent thunder of outgoing artillery fire punctuates the relative calm of central Damascus.
Last week, a mortar attack on an Assad campaign rally killed at least 21 people, strengthening fears that the election may bring an uptick in violence.
And in the chaos of war, some say they see little exit.
“If we support the regime now, it’s not because we like the regime, it’s not because we are in love with the regime,” explained Hussam Eddine al-Habbash, a Syrian lawyer who said he was speaking for the “silent majority” in Syria. “Both sides have their hands stained with blood. Now we hold tight to the strongest arm, but when there’s an alternative, I’ll take it.”