03/07/2014 11:14 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

It's Presidential Campaign Season In Syria. This Is What It Looks Like

Joshua Hersh/The Huffington Post

DAMASCUS, Syria -- It started around the recent peace talks in Geneva, people say.

One by one, the metal security grates outside the shops that line the bustling streets of Damascus’s commercial pathways started to be repainted, most in exactly the same way: three broad streaks of red, white, and black, with two green stars in the middle -- the Syrian national flag.

By the end of this week, the work appeared to be mostly done: just about every storefront in the city was painted in similar fashion, turning the plain but otherwise distinct fronts of Syrian local businesses into uniform displays of national pride -- a giant flag unfurled across the city.

In the words of the shopkeepers, whose candor when speaking to a foreign journalist can be limited, the painting was a spontaneous act -- as if everyone in the city suddenly had the same idea.

“We did it because we are all with the government,” said the owner of the Tamtoum children’s clothing store, near Arnous square in downtown. “We are all together as one. No one asked us to do this.”

More probable was the answer recently found by a reporter for Reuters, who learned that in some cases orders had come from members of neighborhood defense committees, who traveled their areas of patrol by motorcycle ordering store owners to have the flags up or face a fine or imprisonment.

Displays of nationalism are nothing new in Damascus, of course, especially over the past few years as war has encroached upon the capital. Pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez -- always a watchful presence around government buildings and inside stores -- have appeared more often and in more public spaces, brighter and larger than ever.

And as checkpoint and security barricades went up around the city, many of those were painted in the national colors as well. (A reporter who recently took a rest by leaning on one such barricade was quickly berated by a heavily armed soldier for dishonoring the flag.)

But after an initial outpouring at the start of the war, visitors say the public demonstrations of national admiration have been dwindling -- until this recent resurgence. The country's presidential elections are scheduled for June, and Assad says he plans to run.

Still, even Damascus residents are mystified by the rollout -- and its rapid, nearly universal completion.

“Nobody knows where it came from,” said Anas Joudeh, a political activist in Damascus. “In some cases maybe some shops were told to do it, I think, in others they just decided on their own. Nobody wants to be the one store owner who doesn’t have the flag. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where someone can ask, ‘Why haven’t you painted? Are you against the president?’”

“My understanding is that it was a suggestion,” said another resident, adding that Syria is a country where the space between suggestion and command is often imperceptibly slim.

A keen eye can spot slight variations. Most of the paintings are horizontal and crisp, as if done professionally, perhaps using spray paint and stencils. But on others, the lines are haphazard — especially the stars — with indications of having been applied by a shaky hand. (There are rumors that some stores are painted overnight by freelance nationalists, who return in the morning demanding payment.)

And then there are the elaborate and emphatic ones -- storefronts painted in the shape of the country, or with the stripes running at steep angles, or with an eagle wrapped in a flag and the face of Bashar al-Assad overtop.

The cumulative effect, at night and on weekends, when the shops are closed and grates are down, is to make a boulevard like the main thoroughfare of central Damascus’s Shaalan neighborhood look like a street painting crew had misfired, coating the entire block with colorful stripes.

In the area, another shopkeeper, pressed on why the painting had happened, was even more evasive -- or, perhaps, the most direct. “Only God knows,” he said.