Assad Preps for Polls as Vigils Mark 3 Years of Syria War

Amid vigils to mark today’s third anniversary of the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, President Bashar al-Assad’s government prepared for new elections while the United Nations renewed its call to resume peace talks.

The Syrian parliament met yesterday to discuss a new election law that would let candidates run for president and permit a multiparty political system, the state-run SANA news agency said. While a 2012 revision of the country’s constitution allows such steps, legislation to implement the changes has languished.

UN officials are cautioning that proceeding with a Syrian presidential election this year -- especially one dominated by Assad -- would damage whatever prospects there are for negotiating an end to the bloodshed.

While the Syrian government has yet to announce that presidential elections will be held, if they are, “my suspicion is all of the opposition will probably not be interested in talking to the government” UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters today in New York after briefing the Security Council.

Aid organizations and non-government groups joined forces to organize candlelight vigils for the Syrian people in more than 40 countries today. As part of the commemoration, a revised version of the 2002 stencil piece of a Syrian girl with a red balloon by the British street artist Banksy will be projected onto international landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower.

Chemical Weapons

The civil war broke out after Assad’s forces fired on peaceful protesters marching to end his family’s 43-year rule, and it continues with no end in sight. More than 130,000 people have died and more than 9 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, according to the UN, creating the worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The conflict has added another destabilizing force to Middle East politics and security.

After reports that Assad’s government last August unleashed chemical weapons against rebellious Syrians near the capital of Damascus, U.S. President Barack Obama was poised to follow through on his vow to intervene militarily if a “red line” of using such weapons was crossed. More than 1,400 people died in the attack, which Assad denied that his forces had initiated.

Obama backed off the military option amid opposition in the U.S. Congress and as Russia, one of the Syrian government’s main backers and arms suppliers along with Iran, helped negotiate a deal in which Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons and enter peace talks.

Missed Deadlines

The Syrian regime has missed several midterm deadlines in the agreed time line for removing and destroying its military’s 1,300-ton arsenal of chemical weapons by mid-June. Two rounds of the peace talks known as Geneva II, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia and mediated by the UN, fell apart last month as Assad’s government and representatives of the main opposition groups backed by the U.S. and other Western powers failed to agree on an agenda.

From Jan. 22, when the talks opened, to Feb. 15, when the second round ended, almost 6,000 people died, making it the bloodiest period of the war, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“We would very much like to continue this Geneva process, and we would like the help of the Security Council and all those who can help, to make sure that if and when we have a third round, it will be a little bit more productive than the second one,” Brahimi said after briefing the council for the first time since the negotiations collapsed.

‘Clear Steps’

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging the international community, and in particular the U.S. and Russia, “to take clear steps to re-energize the Geneva process” and find a political solution that will “end the nightmare of the Syrian people,” his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

A declaration adopted at an international conference in Geneva in June 2012 called for establishing a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive power.

Terrorism Allegations

Assad hasn’t recognized the document, and instead has pushed for the negotiations to focus on what he terms terrorism against Syria. He’s said that since the war’s start that armed rebel groups are foreign-backed terrorists and extremists seeking to unlawfully overthrow his government.

Brahimi said peace talks can resume when the two parties can agree to discuss in parallel the issue of terrorism and forming a transitional governing body in Syria.

While the opposition insists that Assad must have no future political role in Syria, the former optometrist has left the door open to run for re-election and remain in office.

Assad, 48, has been president since 2000, when he succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad. The elder Assad, a former military commander, had been president since 1971.

His son won an additional seven-year term in 2007 with 97 percent of the vote in a nationwide referendum where he was the only candidate.

Assad’s term as president ends on July 17. The constitution requires that any election be held between 60 to 90 days before his term expires.

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