WASHINGTON — Syria has announced that it will hold presidential elections June 3, despite an ongoing civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people in the past three years and forced about 1.5 million to flee. The announcement comes as the West investigates rebel allegations that the government has been using chemical weapons against the opposition.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare trip outside Damascus on Sunday to visit the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, recaptured from rebels last week. He told local residents they can count on his government's protection against "terrorists," the term his government often uses for rebels. On Monday, his government announced the date of the next presidential election.
The two events follow Syrian government's recent advances against Islamist insurgents. President Assad has not officially said if he will run, but he is widely expected to use his current advantage to win a third term.
The United Nations warned against holding elections at this time.
"I think both the secretary-general [Ban Ki-moon] and joint special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, have repeatedly warned that the holding of elections in the current circumstances amid the ongoing conflict and massive displacement will damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution that the country so urgently needs," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General.
International talks on Syria held earlier this year have produced no tangible results. And the major players in the talks, Russia, the United States and the European Union, are dealing with the conflict in Ukraine, so that puts the future of Syria talks in question.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the election a parody of democracy.
"The regime's violent suppression of the Syrian people's calls for freedom and dignity is what sparked this brutal conflict. Staging elections under current conditions, including the effective disenfranchisement of millions of Syrians, neither addresses the aspirations of the Syrian people nor moves the country any closer to a negotiated political solution," said Psaki.
Psaki said the U.S. government is investigating reports that the Syrian government used toxic chlorine gas against the opposition earlier this month. Yehia Soulaiman, a military analyst in Damascus, said the accusation is fabricated.
"They [the opposition] intend to win compassion from the international community by the excuse of chemical weapons. They are hoping for foreign intervention. The opposition rebels intend for foreign military intervention in Syria just like what happened in Libya years ago," said Soulaiman.
The government agreed last year to ship its chemical weapons out of the country, following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people. Chlorine was not covered by the agreement.