DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrians in government-held areas of the war-torn country headed to polling stations on Wednesday to vote in a presidential election guaranteed to give President Bashar Assad a fourth seven-year term.
The vote is the second presidential election since the country’s conflict began 10 years ago and has been dismissed as a sham by the opposition and Western countries, including the United States. The post has been held by members of the Assad family for five decades.
“The Assad regime’s so-called presidential election is neither free nor fair,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a Twitter post Wednesday. “The U.S. joins France, Germany, Italy, and the UK in calling for the rejection of the regime’s attempts to regain legitimacy without respecting the Syrian people’s human rights and freedoms.”
Assad blasted countries that have dismissed the vote as illegitimate, saying most of those nations “have colonial history” and “we as a state are not concerned about such statements.”
He spoke Wednesday morning after casting his ballot in the Damascus suburb of Douma. The area was one of the main rebel strongholds in the country until it was retaken by government forces in 2018. It was the scene of an alleged poison gas attack in April 2018 that triggered strikes by the U.S., Britain and France.
The 55-year-old Assad arrived at the polling station with his wife, Asma, driving his own car.
Assad has been in power since 2000, when he took over from his father Hafez, who ruled before that for 30 years. Despite the war, which seemed at one point to threaten his rule, Assad remained in power supported by regional powerhouse Iran and Russia, which sent in military advisers and air power to push back the armed opposition.
Wednesday’s vote is also being held under Syria’s current constitution, disregarding a 2015 U.N.-charted path toward a political resolution to the decade-old war. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 unanimously endorsed a political process and road map to peace in Syria that begins with drafting a new constitution and ends with U.N.-supervised elections.
Two other little known figures, Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmad Marie, are also running for the country’s top post. But competition with Assad is largely seen as symbolic in a country where election results are known in advance.
Starting at 7 a.m., thousands began arriving at polling stations in Damascus, thronging streets festooned with giant posters of Assad and banners praising his rule. Most were not wearing masks, despite a coronavirus outbreak in the country.
“We choose the future. We choose Bashar Assad,” read one of thousands of banners raised in the capital Damascus.
“I am here to vote because it is a national duty to choose a president who will lead us in the coming period,” said civil servant Muhannad Helou, 38, who said he voted for Assad.
No vote will be held in northeast Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters, or in the northwestern province of Idlib that is the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Still, in some parts of government-held areas, including the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, many have rejected the vote calling it “illegitimate.”
Activists and opposition media platforms reported a general strike for the second day Wednesday in a number of villages and towns in Daraa province, to protest against holding the elections and placing ballot boxes in the area, where government security agencies are deployed.
In the rebel-held city of Idlib, thousands took to the streets in a boisterous rally in which they chanted songs against Assad and revived slogans used in the early days of the uprising against him. The rally was organized to denounce the elections, which protesters called “farcical” and illegitimate.
“I woke up this morning to find Bashar Assad electing himself. What a farce!” said Salwa Abdel-Rahman, who wore a revolution flag around her neck and a headband that read: “No to racism and tyranny.” She was displaced from Aleppo n 2012.
“Syria’s presidential election is not expected to be free, fair, or legitimate,” said Edward Denhert, Middle Eastern research analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit. In a note, he said the sham election will deepen the rift between Syria and the West and that consequently, Assad will pivot further toward its Russian and Iranian backers as well as China.
The vote this year comes as Syria’s economy is in free fall as a result of a decade of war, Western sanctions, government corruption and the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria’s main link with the outside world.
The Biden administration has said it will not recognize the result of the Syrian election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the United Nations, and representative all of Syrian society.
“The U.N. is not involved in this election and has no mandate to be,” U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the U.N. Security Council in a briefing Wednesday. “It is a source of regret that, despite our best efforts, there has been little progress this month, and indeed at all, in advancing the different dimensions of resolution 2254,” he added.
Pedersen had previously singled out the Syrian government for blocking progress in the constitutional committee established to draft a new constitution.
Syria’s Interior Minister Mohammad Rahmoun said 12,102 polling stations were set up in all the Syrian governorates. He said there are more than 18 million eligible voters in Syria and abroad. Syrians living abroad voted last week.
Syria had a population of 23 million before the conflict broke out a decade ago. The fighting has left nearly half a million dead and half the country’s population displaced, more than 5 million of them refugees outside Syria.
The civil war broke out in 2011 when Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgency in response to a brutal military crackdown.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed reporting.