DAMASCUS - Syria's exiled opposition will be barred from a presidential election to be held before July, virtually ensuring Bashar al-Assad's reelection three years into an uprising against his family's four-decade rule.
Saturday marks the third anniversary of Syria's revolt, which began as a series of mass protests calling for democratic change but deteriorated into an insurgency and then a civil war after the regime launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.
Assad has remained in power despite fighting that has killed more than 140,000 people and driven millions from their homes, as rebels have seized large swathes of the country and entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble.
The opposition has repeatedly insisted Assad must step down as part of any peace agreement, most recently in two rounds of failed talks held earlier this year.
In keeping with a new constitution adopted in 2012, the elections will for the first time be open to multiple candidates, including from outside the Baath Party of Assad, who has not announced his candidacy but is widely expected to seek another seven-year term.
But a new electoral law approved by parliament Thursday says any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and not hold any other nationality, in effect barring any member of the National Coalition, an umbrella opposition group based in Istanbul.
The only opposition candidates who appear eligible would be those from the tolerated opposition in Damascus, who have little popular support and no connection to the rebels battling to overthrow Assad.
The election must be called 60 to 90 days before the end of Assad's term on July 17.
Previous elections in Syria have been referendums to confirm the candidate chosen by the ruling Baath party, whose power was entrenched in a 1973 constitution.
Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, and when he died in 2000 his son Bashar took over.
Vote could torpedo talks
Both Syria's opposition and international mediators have rejected plans to hold a presidential election in the middle of a civil war, warning that doing so could deal a further blow to already faltering peace negotiations.
"If there is an election, my suspicion is the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government," said UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in a briefing to the Security Council.
Syria's regime has long portrayed the rebels as "terrorists" backed by foreign powers, insisting it has been able to survive the conflict because it has the support of the people.
But the Assad government has been accused of wide-ranging atrocities, from the jailing and torture of thousands of people to dropping so-called barrel bombs filled with TNT from the air, a tactic rights groups say fails to discriminate between fighters and civilians.
The rebels - particularly the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - have also been accused of human rights violations.
Syria's civil war has forced more than nine million people from their homes, creating the world's largest displaced population, the UN said Friday.
"It is unconscionable that a humanitarian catastrophe of this scale is unfolding before our eyes with no meaningful progress to stop the bloodshed," UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
With more than 2.5 million Syrians currently registered or awaiting registration as refugees in neighbouring countries, Syrians are expected to soon overtake Afghans as the world's largest refugee population.
More than 6.5 million people are displaced inside Syria, meaning the total number of Syrians who have fled their homes now exceeds 40 per cent of the pre-conflict population, the UNHCR said, stressing that at least half of the displaced are children.