DAMASCUS - After three years of grinding conflict, the destruction of whole city districts and an exodus of refugees all triggered by an uprising against his rule, Bashar al-Assad is quietly preparing to be re-elected.
The Syrian president has not yet announced whether he will stand for a third term, in defiance of protesters, rebel fighters and Western foes who have demanded he go; but in state-controlled parts of Damascus preparations for his candidacy are unmistakable.
Public gatherings have become platforms to urge the president to nominate himself, despite a continuing civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people, fractured the country and destroyed any chance of a credible vote being held.
Authorities are once again organising demonstrations in support of Assad, accused by opponents of massacres of civilians. Shopkeepers are encouraged to show their support by painting national colours on their store fronts.
Some express their loyalty in general displays of patriotism, while others explicitly call on the 48-year-old president to announce he will stand in the vote, which is due to be held by July.
Just 18 months ago, Assad’s grip over his capital seemed to be slipping as rebels gained ground around Damascus. Since then his forces have consolidated control in central Syria. Rebels still insist his departure is precondition for any peace deal, but having lost military momentum they are unable to dictate terms.
At a gathering in southern Damascus last month to honour victims of Syria’s conflict, local officials and clerics turned the solemn memorial into a political rally.
After handing out awards to widows and grieving mothers in Sayida Zeinab, a suburb of the capital which has been at the heart of Assad’s counter-attack against rebels, they made their case for a third term of Assad rule.
“The president said: ‘If there is a popular demand for me to be nominated, I will run. I will not abandon my national duty’,” said Shi'ite Muslim cleric Al Sayyed Fadi Burhan.
Demonstrators waving portraits of Assad and flags adorned with his face are once again on the streets, albeit in smaller numbers than the many thousands who rallied in 2011 when authorities were trying to counter the mass anti-Assad protests sweeping the country.
Schoolchildren are bused in to take part in marches, much to the alarm of parents who say they are given no prior notice that their children are being taken to demonstrate while Syria’s civil war rages on.
The mobilisation appears aimed at reinforcing the government’s long-standing assertion that Syrian citizens want Assad to stand.
Amendments to Syria’s constitution agreed in a referendum two years ago mean that, for the first time, rival candidates would be able to stand against Assad - but only if they win the support of 35 members of Syria’s pro-Assad parliament.
That would at least in theory mark a change from four decades of presidential votes when the only options Syrians had were to support or oppose parliament’s nomination of Assad and, before him, his father Hafez al-Assad.
Monzer Akbik, chief of staff to opposition National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba, said Syria had not held a real election since Assad’s Baath Party seized power in 1963 and any vote held in current circumstances “would be a joke”.
Jarba’s coalition has held two rounds of unsuccessful talks in Geneva with government negotiators, aimed at resolving the civil war. The opposition and international mediator say the talks must address a transitional government - a phrase Assad’s opponents understand to mean that he must go.
In response to the pro-Assad mobilisation, an online campaign to nominate popular opposition figure Moaz Alkhatib to run against him was launched last week and quickly snowballed into tens of thousands of supporters.
Syrians inside besieged rebel areas as well as exiled supporters from as far away as Australia and Ukraine have posted photos of themselves with cards backing the former preacher at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
Alkhatib, currently based in Qatar, welcomed the Internet campaign but echoed Akbik’s objection to holding the vote amid the turmoil of civil war and under the supervision of Assad’s authorities.
Holding an election appears impossible while 2.4 million Syrians are refugees in neighbouring countries, many millions more are displaced within Syria and Assad has lost control of northern and eastern Syria.
Even in Damascus, few believe the vote will go ahead.