DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — On billboards and in posters taped to car windows, new portraits of President Bashar Assad filled the streets of Damascus on Sunday as Syria officially opened its presidential campaign despite a crippling civil war that has devastated the country and left large chunks of territory outside of government control.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the June 3 election as a sham designed to lend Assad, who is widely expected to win another seven-year term, a veneer of electoral legitimacy. The government, meanwhile, has touted the vote as the political solution to the conflict.
The election comes more than three years into a revolt against Assad's rule that has killed more than 150,000 people and forced more than 2.5 million to seek refuge abroad. The war has destroyed entire cities and towns, left the economy in tatters, and set alight sectarian hatreds in a society once known for its tolerance.
With the country so bitterly divided, it remains unclear how the government intends to hold a credible vote in the middle of the conflict. But officials have brushed aside such doubts, and have forged ahead undeterred.
Assad faces two other candidates in the race: Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both members of the so-called internal opposition tolerated by the government. But the men are relatively unknown, and neither has the full weight of the state behind him like Assad does.
That distinction was on full display Sunday on the streets of Damascus.
On the bustling Thawra Street in the center of the city, two new Assad billboards greeted the crowds below. One shows Assad, dressed in a gray suit and blue shirt, along with the word "Together." The second billboard just reads "Together," along with the president's signature.
Several cars flying national flags and photos of the president blasted nationalist songs as they cruised the capital's streets in a show of support for Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his father, Hafez, in 2000.
Riyadh Shahin, 44, a government employee, said that he intends to vote for Assad.
"I am still convinced that he was still the sole leader who can achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people," Shahin said. "In my opinion, Assad is the suitable person for this post, because without him, Syria was now divided. He is the sole guarantee to keep Syria strong."
By late Saturday, the other two candidates had pitched up their own photographs along other main roads of Damascus, scrawled with slogans.
"Change is a necessity," was written under Hajjar's photograph on Mazzeh street. "Administrative and human development is our slogan to build the homeland," read a promise by the other candidate, al-Nouri.
The presence of other candidates on the ballot represents a shift in Syria. Until now, Assad and his father have been elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door to a multi-candidate race. The new law, however, placed conditions effectively ensuring that almost no opposition figures would be able to run. It states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship.
Analysts say that the vote was likely set for mid-summer to give the military and its allied militias time to seize more ground, particularly key urban centers, before citizens head to the polls.
With a mix of brute force and negotiations, the government secured a major victory last week, striking a deal with the last rebel holdouts in the central city of Homs. Under the agreement, some 2,000 opposition fighters and civilians in the Old City received safe passage to rebel areas to the north, handing the government control of Homs — the country's third-largest city.
Underscoring those efforts, anti-Assad activists began their own campaign Sunday on social media networks, called "Blood Elections."
A page created on Facebook showed a hand placing a vote in a barrel dripping with blood, a reference to the crude bombs that Syrian military helicopters routinely drop on rebel-held areas, which overwhelmingly kill civilians.
"The farce of elections under Assad's barrel bombs," the slogan read.
Also Sunday, fighters of the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, were surrounding the eastern town of Deir al-Zour, reported the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Lebanese television station al-Manar.
They were clashing against their former allies, the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate known as the Nusra Front.
The days of clashes have forced tens of thousands of Syrians to flee elsewhere.
If the Islamic State does take Deir al-Zour, they will strengthen their control over a swath of eastern Syria running the course of the Euphrates river from their stronghold of Raqqa, ultimately reaching neighboring Iraq.
In the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, residents said they were drinking polluted well water distributed in buckets, as the water remained cut off in the country's largest metropolis for the eighth day. "It's salty, and we are just using it for drinking and basic needs, because there isn't much of it," said an activist in Aleppo who uses the name Abu Joud al-Mujahid.
Rami Abdurrahman, of the Observatory said the Nusra Front cut the city's main water pipes to punish civilians living under government-controlled areas, but the cut also affected opposition-controlled parts as well.
The Observatory bases its information from activists on the ground.
It wasn't clear how many people were affected by the massive water shortages, but Aleppo is Syria's largest city.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.
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