By Barbara Surk Associated Press
BEIRUT — Embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad will face two other candidates in the coming June presidential election, the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court announced Sunday, a vote he’s widely expected to win amid the country’s raging civil war.
The court found 21 other candidates ineligible to run, court spokesman Majid Khadra said on state television. He did not elaborate.
Assad, who is seeking a third seven-year term, will face Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, a 54-year-old lawmaker from Damascus, and 43-year-old Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a lawmaker from the northern city of Aleppo.
Opposition activists and Western countries have condemned the elections as a sham as voting is expected to be held only in government-controlled territory.
Assad took power after the death of his father, Hafez, in 2000. Previously, they had been elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
In March, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door — at least in theory — to other candidates. 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.
No reliable statistics exist on public support for Assad. But a large number of Syrians are mistrustful of all the country’s warring parties.
The armed rebellion is dominated by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, while Syria’s mix of Christian and Muslim minorities, including Assad’s own Alawite sect, tend to support the president, fearful of their fates should hard-line Sunni Muslims come to power.
Syria’s conflict has evolved into war with sectarian overtones that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role, dampening the West’s support for the rebellion to overthrow Assad.
That has led to a backlash by Islamic brigades and more moderate rebels who launched a war against the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Fighting between opposing rebel groups has killed more than 3,000 people since the beginning of the year, activists say.
On Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said infighting between the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has killed 62 rebels and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in the area over several days of fighting. The fighting is taking place around three villages in Deir el-Zour province near the Iraqi border.
The clashes continued despite pleas Friday from al-Qaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to halt the infighting. On Sunday, the Nusra Front said it would abide by al-Zawahiri’s plea to not fight — as long as the Islamic State stopped “its aggression.”
Meanwhile, rebels holed in up Syria’s third-largest city of Homs are expected to be evacuated Tuesday, said one activist and a pro-Assad television channel.
The rebels agreed to a surrender deal on Friday that began with a cease-fire that was still holding Sunday.
The activist, who uses the name Samer al-Homsi, and al-Manar, a channel owned by the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, reported the delay. Hezbollah has sent fighters to support Assad.
Both said the delay was to ensure food and medical aid could reach a Shiite-dominated area in northern Syria that is being blockaded by rebels.
It is still unclear however, if the negotiators have reached agreement over safety guarantees that would allow some 2,000 fighters and activists from 13 opposition-held districts.
Two activists, including al-Homsi. said rebels negotiating on their behalf were worried that powerful pro-Assad militias will fire on them while they try leave.
The negotiations also now include rebels in the northern city of Aleppo releasing four foreign hostages and dozens of rival Syrians, the activists said. They identified the foreigners were three Iranians and one Russian.
The governments of Syria, Iran and Russia have not commented on the negotiations.
The deal also would include both rebels and government forces allowing in more food and medical aid for civilians.
The rebels’ surrender in Homs has been a symbolic blow to those who supported the uprising to overturn Assad’s rule. Homs was known as the “capital of the Syrian revolution” because so many residents quickly joined the largely peaceful uprising in March 2013.