Syrians tune up for elections; Assad deemed likely to run

BEIRUT -- Syrian lawmakers Thursday approved revisions to the nation’s electoral law amid mounting indications that President Bashar Assad plans to run for a new seven-year term.

Assad, whose current mandate ends in July, has frequently hinted that he would seek reelection under the terms of a new constitution approved in 2012. The Syrian parliament has been modifying the nation's election law in accordance with the new constitution, though no date has yet been set for elections.

Representatives of the opposition that seeks to oust Assad from office have said repeatedly that any election held while the nation's civil war was still raging would be a sham -- especially if Assad was on the ballot.

The new constitution allows for multiple candidates and political parties, but critics say the ongoing conflict and Assad's tight hold on the security services and government agencies would ensure his reelection.

In New York, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, voiced fears Thursday that the planned elections would likely jeopardize the so-called Geneva peace process.

"If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition ... will probably not be interested in talking to the government," Brahimi, chief mediator in the Geneva talks, told reporters in New York.

Two rounds of negotiations this year between Syrian government officials and a U.S.-backed exile opposition bloc have failed to achieve much, the U.N. mediator acknowledged. However, Brahimi said he was still hopeful that a third round could be "more productive." No date has been set for a resumption of talks.

A major goal of the Geneva negotiations is to name a transitional government that would lead Syria until a new, democratic government could be elected. The opposition argues that Assad cannot be part of any transitional administration, a position rejected by Syrian negotiators.

Although Assad has not formally committed to running for reelection, various Syrian government officials have indicated that he will likely seek a third term.

"President Assad is the real guarantee for the security and stability of Syria," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Thursday in an interview with China's Xinhua news agency.

Assad was first elected in 2000 in unopposed balloting after the death of his father, ex-President Hafez Assad. He was reelected in 2007, receiving more than 97% of the vote, according to official tallies.

This week marks the third anniversary of the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with street protests that triggered a government crackdown. The war has left more than 100,000 dead, reduced many neighborhoods and towns to rubble and resulted in more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria.

Special correspondent Bulos contributed from Amman, Jordan.