Syria election: To vote or not to vote, to stay or go

Syrian schoolchildren walk past a record-breaking mural in the al-Mazzeh neighbourhood

In the midst of a civil war which has killed an estimated 150,000 people, Syria is preparing for a presidential election - a sign of Bashar al-Assad's confidence that he is here to stay.

A Syrian friend has a big dilemma. It's one that confronts parents the world over - where should his little boy go to school?

As any parent knows, it can be a difficult decision. But most would not know the difficulty of this decision in Damascus.

His first question is: "Is this school likely to be shelled?"

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Second, he asks himself: "How many checkpoints are there between my house and that school and if something happens, how quickly can I reach him?"

He paused and then burst into loud laughter: "I haven't even begun to consider how good the school is and who the teachers are."

He then took a long draw on his cigarette, as if to punctuate his laughter with a pause that made it clear this was no laughing matter.

A few days later, we met again.

And then, I learned he was troubled by an even bigger decision.

Had he, he asked aloud, already made the wrong choice by staying in Syria?

This meeting took place on the day presidential elections were announced, the day it was confirmed that Bashar al-Assad would run again, for a third seven-year term.

For my friend, and like-minded professionals like him who still hang on in Damascus, it was the final nail in the coffin.

There would be no negotiated way out of this war, no process, however slow, of trying to build political change from within.

"Assad is telling us he is here to stay, that he's not interested in any other political ideas," he laments.

Another Damascene sitting with him listens in silence.

"What do you think?" I ask him cautiously, knowing this is not a place where people readily offer their political views.

He offers only one phrase: "I am against extremists."

Supporters of President Assad in the village of Jobar, near Damascus

That's the label given to Islamist rebels by regime supporters.

"So you support the president?"

He nodded with the confidence of someone who had no questions about the choices he had made. He believed he was on the winning side.

Of course, these elections are meant to offer Syrians a choice.

It's the first presidential poll in decades where there will be more than one name on the ballot.

But everyone knows there will only be one name that matters.

A prominent Syrian journalist told me the media were called to a meeting by an enthusiastic government official who told them they must give equal space to all candidates.

He also informed them state TV would provide special programming to explain what the new election law means.

But the journalist told me he advised the official "don't waste your time".

Syria today divides in two, he said - into Syrians who will vote yes for Assad, and those who will vote no, or in other words not vote at all.

In essence, this is a referendum on his rule, and perhaps more precisely on the reality that he has survived far longer than many expected.

No-one has any doubt that when voting goes ahead in those parts of Syria which aren't in utter ruin, still engulfed by war, or controlled by opposition fighters, Assad will win.

A man runs past the scene of an explosion in Aleppo

And many doubt it will be an exercise that could in any way be described as legitimate. But this is Syria now… two states of mind, two starkly different realities and, in the middle, the many Syrians who aren't sure what to do, or where to turn.

In a few areas, rebels are now making deals with the government.

Officially it's called reconciliation.

In reality, in places long besieged by government forces, they, and their families, are starving, worn down by a war no-one expected would last this long or be so punishing.

A man who's involved in negotiations told me that even some of the most battle-hardened are now saying: "If I knew three years ago this would be the price, I would never have taken up a gun."

Even some of the activists who took to the streets calling for peaceful change are now exhausted, anxious about their future and their country's fate.

Syrian children in a refugee camp at Zaatari in northern Jordan

In the midst of this anguish, Syria will stage an election to send a defiant message that life will carry on, no matter what.

For the opposition that hasn't given up the fight, it's also a clarion call to carry on.

I asked a senior government official whether he thought it was a good idea to hold an election now.

"I don't know," he admits with candour.

"Do you think it will help or harm the chances of moving forward?"

He shook his head: "I just don't know."

This is Syria now. Not knowing what choices to make, what choices there really are.

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