DAMASCUS One of President Bashar al-Assad's two challengers in next month's election praised his military campaign against Islamist rebels but said Syria must do more to maintain ties with the West and rebuild its economy after three years of war.
Hassan al-Nouri said there was no difference between the three candidates over military strategy against Syrian rebels and their foreign Sunni Muslim backers in the ongoing conflict.
"Our enemy is still the same enemy. We are all against terrorism," Nouri told Reuters in an interview less than three weeks before an election which authorities portray as a landmark for democracy and the West has dismissed as a sham.
The June 3 election is the first time in half a century that Syrian ballot papers will contain any name other than Assad. The last seven votes were referenda to approve Bashar al-Assad or his father, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez never scored less than 99 percent, while his son got 97.6 percent seven years ago.
Despite the move to allow two rivals approved by parliament and the constitutional court to run this time, Assad's international foes say the election is a charade intended to rubber stamp his rule for another seven year term.
They say no credible vote can be held in a country fractured by a war which grew out of a popular uprising against the president and which has displaced millions of people.
But Nouri, a U.S.-educated economist and former junior minister, said most Syrians would be able to vote.
"In the middle of the country the situation is perfect for election. On the coast the situation is very good. In the southern part of Syria the situation is getting better," the grey-suited Nouri said in the interview at a Damascus hotel.
Some Syrians still "have doubt and fear about how to react to this new democracy" and even some of Nouri's friends were reluctant to endorse him in public, he said, but state media were giving fair coverage to him and the other challenger, parliamentarian Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar.
"The problem is you are competing (with) Bashar al-Assad - 14 years a president and coming from a heritage of a great president of Syria," he said, speaking in English.
"But you have to admit that I am very courageous to build my program to go (against) the system ...I am not with Assad. I am going to compete with him to the end."
GOVERNMENT "DOING FINE"
Nouri, a 54-year-old Damascene who has an MBA in public management from Wisconsin University, said that if elected he would push harder for "international dialogue" including with Assad's Western critics.
"I would be trying to adapt the relationship with the West in a more aggressive way," he said, adding that Damascus should keep chances alive "for very strong diplomatic ties with all countries, including the USA."
He said he would be ready to negotiate with armed groups but would "never deal with terrorist groups", a position he portrayed as being in line with Assad's policy.
While suggesting authorities gave protesters little chance to voice grievances when the uprising erupted in March 2011, he said it would be wrong to criticize the government now that "terrorism has become the number one factor in this revolution".
Syria's opposition in exile says it was Assad's forceful response to peaceful demonstrations which pushed the uprising towards armed insurgency, now backed by foreign jihadi fighters.
"After evaluating the current government and the current president's performance concerning this ... I see they are doing fine," said Nouri.
Nevertheless there was a large middle ground of Syrian opinion which was neither with the president nor the radical Islamist wing of his armed opponents.
"I know the pro-Assad (side) will never be convinced no matter what I do and the opposition, the extremists... will never consider my program," Nouri said.
"But you know what? Both are not the majority," he added, appealing to what he said was Syria's silent majority who "care about their country, care about their security (and) want food on their table."
Describing himself as a free market economist, he said his immediate priority would be to rebuild Syria's infrastructure which has been devastated by a conflict in which 150,000 people have been killed, and revive the middle class.
"A country without a middle class will never grow."
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)