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'I am a real contender,' says Syria presidential candidate

One of two candidates running against longtime Syrian ruler Bashar Assad is casting himself as the first opposition representative to vie for the country’s top post.

Mohamoud Marei said Tuesday that as a critic of the government who remained in Syria, he may have the keys to solving the ruinous 10-year conflict.

But Marei, a lawyer who heads a small government-sanctioned opposition group, has virtually no chance of waging real competition in next week’s election to the incumbent. Assad has held power since 2000, when he took over after the death of his father who ran the country for 30 years.

Despite the war, which seemed at one point to threaten his rule, Assad remained in power, supported by regional powerhouse Iran and Russia, which sent in military advisers and air power to push back the armed opposition.

Competition with Assad is largely symbolic and seen by the opposition and Western countries as a sham aimed at giving the incumbent president a veneer of legitimacy. Assad is certain to win a fourth seven-year term in next week’s vote.

“I am a real contender,” Marei, 67, said. “Whether I make it or not this is up to the Syrian people,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in Damascus

Marei is not recognized by most of the Syrian opposition — largely based in exile — as their representative in Thursday’s election. It is Syria’s second since civil war broke out in 2011. Syrians abroad will vote on Thursday.

He is part of an umbrella group known as the Democratic National Opposition Front formed in 2018 in Damascus. It was formed to include a group of activists approved and allowed to operate by the Assad government and powerful security agencies.

But the elections are not taking place in at least four provinces because they are under the control of the opposition and Kurdish forces, depriving nearly 8 million Syrians of a vote. Many refugees are also unlikely to vote in elections organized in Syrian embassies.

Marei said the elections could not be postponed until all Syrian territories were liberated, echoing the government line.

If elected, he said he would call for a domestic national conference for the Syrian opposition to include only “nationalist” groups, not those who receive support and finance from foreign countries.

“We need a new political life in Syria,” he said.

Marei spoke to The Associated Press in a coffee shop in Damascus, where the power was out as Syria grapples with dwindling resources and worsening economic conditions.

His solution to the country’s economic problems is to reclaim parts of Syria under Turkish or American control and restore the central government’s control over oil and agriculture resources. Marei said he would work to end Western sanctions imposed against Assad and his supporters for what are considered war crimes committed during the conflict. He did not say how he planned to do that.

Marei said he recognized how critical the issue of Syrian detainees is and plans to release them “with a press of a button.” Rights groups estimate there are tens of thousands of Syrians detained and forcibly disappeared since the war began.

Marei said he has been detained for a total of nearly six years for criticizing the one-party system. He said he was also barred from traveling for five years until 2011. After initially participating in the peaceful rallies that erupted in March 2011, Marei said he stopped backing them when the opposition took up arms.

“I want to change the structure of the regime from a totalitarian dictatorship to a democratic system,” he said. He said his election campaign is financed by donations from friends and businessmen.

According to the U.N. resolution for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict, a new constitution should be drafted and approved in a public referendum before U.N.-monitored presidential elections take place. But little progress has been made on the drafting committee.

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

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