PARIS International powers who support the Syrian opposition have firmly rebuffed any idea of a presidential election organized by the Syrian government in the midst of a civil war, describing the plans as a "parody of democracy" that would kill peace talks.
The Friends of Syria, an alliance of mainly Western and Gulf Arab countries, issued a statement on Thursday in light of recent developments in Syria, where there appears to be no end in sight after more than three years of conflict sparked by protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
The government has made incremental gains in recent months, regaining the initiative in the conflict. Emboldened by failed peace talks in Geneva, and with the support of his allies Iran and Russia, Assad is looking increasingly likely to stand for a third term in July.
"Elections organized by the Assad regime would be a parody of democracy, would reveal the regime's rejection of the basis of the Geneva talks, and would deepen the division of Syria," said the 11-strong group, which includes the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
If Assad did run, in defiance of the opposition and Western leaders who have demanded he step down, that would end the U.N.-backed Geneva peace process, which was predicated on steps towards a democratic transition.
Syria's parliament set residency rules for presidential candidates in March, a move that would bar many of Assad's foes who live in exile.
"Recent actions by the Assad regime to pave the way for presidential elections in the coming months, including the promulgation of a new electoral law, have no credibility," the group said. "Bashar al-Assad intends these elections to sustain his dictatorship."
The group also said there was no legitimacy in an election conducted in the midst of a conflict, only in government-controlled areas, and with millions of Syrians disenfranchised, displaced from their homes, or in refugee camps.
The number of Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon officially topped 1 million on Thursday. Syrians have also fled to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, and the official total of 2.6 million refugees - which understates the scale of the exodus - means Syrians will soon overtake Afghans as the world's biggest refugee population.
"An electoral process led by Assad, who the United Nations considers to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, mocks the innocent lives lost in the conflict," the group said.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)