Washington (AFP) – U.S. officials Monday scoffed at the notion that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could organize free and fair elections in which he could run next year.
In an exclusive interview with AFP on Sunday, Assad said there was a “significant chance” he will seek a new seven-year term in the presidential elections due to be held in June.
If there is “public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election,” Assad said, speaking to AFP in his presidential palace. “In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant.”
But top U.S. officials, on a conference call with reporters, dismissed the idea as “ludicrous,” issuing a scathing denunciation of Assad who has waged a brutal war on an uprising which erupted in March 2011.
“This is a guy who has used Scud rockets. This is a guy who’s used chemical weapons on several occasions, killing literally thousands of people. This is a guy who has surrounded cities and starved them,” said one senior State Department official, asking not to be named.
“If you look at the Homs opposition revolution Facebook page yesterday, you will see pictures of bodies of people who have allegedly starved. It looks like people who have come out of concentration camps in World War II, these emaciated bodies,” he said. “This is a man who is using this kind of force to stay in power.”
The official said that during the decades since 1970 that the Assad family has ruled Syria “they have never had a free and fair election in the country.”
Assad was elected in a referendum following the death of his father, Hafez, in 2000 and won another seven-year term in 2007.
“The idea that international observers could go into Syria in the middle of a war and manage an election process in which the family controls the election machinery is ludicrous,” he added.
A further problem was that a third of the country’s population has been displaced either inside the country or have fled across the border.
“How you would arrange for voter registration, how you would arrange for candidate registration is entirely unclear during a war,” the official said. “So you have a variety of both technical issues and …. credibility issues.”
The United States has been one of the prime movers behind an effort to bring together the regime and the opposition in talks due to open on Wednesday in Switzerland.
The U.S. maintains the aim is to install a transitional government, something the Assad regime is resisting.
“He may present himself as a candidate, but I cannot imagine that it would be in a free and fair election, and it certainly would not stop the fighting,” the US official concluded.
He acknowledged the talks would be a “long, hard…and grinding process.”
But he said the opposition, even though it was badly divided and Monday suspended their decision on whether to attend, had some proposals to put on the table.
“They have had a team working on different proposals. They have had a series of international legal firms working with them, for example, that they’ve hired. And they have developed some fairly detailed proposals,” the U.S. official said.
This week’s talks would be “an occasion for the opposition to present a vision and to present a plan for how to get out of” the war.
AFP Photo/Joseph Eid