DAMASCUS, Syria – One of two candidates challenging Bashar Assad in next month's election has almost nothing but praise for the Syrian president, saying his handling of the country's conflict has proven he is a "great leader." His only, slight criticism is that officials in Assad's government have mismanaged the economy.
Still, Hassan al-Nouri insists he is serious about his candidacy in the June 3 vote, which Assad is almost assured of winning. In a 30-minute interview with The Associated Press, al-Nouri said he was running to represent the "silent majority," and called himself a "great candidate and a strong contender."
The election comes more than three years into an uprising against Assad's rule that has killed more than 160,000 people and forced another 2.7 million to seek refuge abroad. The civil war has destroyed much of the country, unleashed a regional humanitarian crisis and ripped apart the nation's economy and social fabric.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the vote as a sham designed to lend Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy. The government, meanwhile, has touted the vote as the political solution to the conflict.
Assad has held power since 2000, when he took over after the death of his father, Hafez, who ran the country for 30 years. Previously, Assad and his father have been elected in single-candidate referendums in which voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
At least on paper, this year marks a shift, with Assad facing two other candidates. A new election law passed this spring opened the door to a multi-candidate vote, but effectively barred members of the opposition from challenging Assad at the ballot box by imposing conditions on who can run. Among other things, the bill states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship.
Out of more than 20 presidential hopefuls who registered their candidacies, only three were accepted by the constitutional court: Assad, al-Nouri, and Maher Hajjar, a legislator from the northern city of Aleppo.
Syria's opposition has scoffed at the notion that the vote will be free and fair, and has mocked Hajjar and al-Nouri — both of whom lack name recognition and political chops — as little more than character actors in political theater.
Al-Nouri, a 54-year-old former lawmaker who was educated in the United States, bristled at the suggestion.
"I am a serious candidate for the presidency," he said during an interview at a Damascus hotel. "I'm not sleeping, I'm working hard, day and night, and you know that, to get votes to win this election. I will never pull up, I will never withdraw."
At the same time, he did little to defuse the allegations, lauding Assad and even limiting his criticism of the government's economic failings to those around the president and not the president himself.
"I do believe that President Assad leading his political file was a very strong leader," al-Nouri said. "When you find a leader like him, fighting this kind of war and this unbelievable terrorism, terrorist action in every place in our country, you have to respect what he's doing.
"But I can tell President Assad, 'Yes you did very well in the political file,' but I think his people, the economists in his government, were not doing well the last 10 years."
Al-Nouri blamed some of the country's economic troubles on Qatar and Turkey, two of the rebellion's strongest supporters and a frequent target of government criticism, saying that Doha and Ankara betrayed Syria's trust after Assad opened up the economy in the 2000s.
"What we give the Turks and the Qataris in our market was unbelievable opportunities," he said. "But I cannot keep blaming President Assad (for) what he did. I have to also blame the betrayers because they did not behave in a very educated way. Especially the Qataris and the Turks."
On the civil war, al-Nouri said he wouldn't handle the crisis any differently than Assad — or Hajjar, for that matter.
"We three of us agree 100 percent on how to deal with the Syria crisis from the political-military point of view," he said.
Hajjar, Assad's other challenger, agreed, saying that on the issues of sovereignty and combatting terrorism, "the other two candidates and myself are absolutely in agreement. I don't think any sane person can abandon those issues."
Speaking to the AP by telephone from Damascus, Hajjar also offered little to differentiate himself from Assad beyond saying that he has a "different political program than the ones on the table until now."
Al-Nouri, although also speaking in broad strokes, offered more detail on his proposals. He said he wants to build a new smart, free economy, and introduce sweeping administrative reforms to try to curb corruption and minimize poverty.
During the short three-week campaign season, al-Nouri has been making the rounds in Syria. He has appeared on state TV and on billboards in Damascus.
"I know that I am competing with a president who has been leading this country for 14 years. I know that his father before him was a great president, and loved by many Syrians, who ran the country for 30 years," he said.
"So I am talking about 44 years of family system, which means that I have to deal with a strong people who earned respect in their society and are believed in by many Syrians. So it's not easy to reconvince Syrians of other colors. But that doesn't mean that you have to hesitate to go on and work hard to win the election."
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut.