Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voted on Wednesday in elections aimed at tightening his grip on a country mired in more than a decade of ongoing conflict.
He cast his vote in Douma, a former rebel stronghold, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in 2018, in response, which saw violent military strikes by the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
Al-Assad said after the vote: “Syria is not what they were trying to market, a city against another, one sect against another, or a civil war. Today we always prove that the Syrian people are one.”
Since March 2011, scores have died, been forcibly disappeared, or were tortured. More than 11 million people – nearly half of the country’s population – fled their homes.
While many Syrians at home and abroad believe the presidential elections are sham, others say the polls will prove Assad’s fourth seven-year term and extend his family’s rule to nearly six decades. His father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria for 30 years, until his death in 2000.
For Munther Ataki, a Syrian who fled Aleppo in 2017 and now lives in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, the elections are no different from those that took place in 2014. “This criminal regime and its allies are trying to act as if they did not kill a single Syrian citizen,” he added. These elections cannot reliably determine the future of Assad or Syria.
Ataki fled with his two young children from air strikes, hunger and fear of torture after the Assad regime brutally seized his property.
Meanwhile, the opposition boycotted the vote. Assad’s presidential opponents are deliberately reduced: former government deputy minister Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmad Marei, head of a small, officially accredited opposition party.
Addressing his critics, including the West, Assad said the Syrians had made their feelings clear by coming out in droves. “The value of your opinions is zero,” he said.
Talib, a Syrian who lives in Germany, whose name is only mentioned by his first name, says that Assad’s choice of Duma, northeast of central Damascus, is of great importance. Douma, the Sunni Muslim city in Eastern Ghouta, has long been besieged by the Assad regime.
Talib said, “He is trying to send a strong political message of victory to Islamic extremist groups, including the Al-Nusra Front, which controlled Douma.”
Douma was the main base for the groups and of vital strategic importance in eastern Damascus, with a road linking Damascus and Homs.
“The elections are rigged, and they are a display by the international media to show that they are holding elections,” Talib said.
In the southern city of Daraa, the cradle of the uprising against Assad in 2011 and an opposition stronghold, until opposition fighters surrendered there three years ago, local leaders called for a strike.
The elections took place despite a UN-led peace process calling for a new constitution and political settlement.
At the Faculty of Arts and Economics at the University of Damascus, hundreds of students queued to vote, and several buses stopped outside.
Groups of them chanted before the start of the polls in scenes that were repeated in 70% of Syria under government control now, “With our blood and our souls we sacrifice our lives for you, Bashar.”
Zainab Hammoud, a freelance photographer and journalist in Damascus, said that after all these years in the war, Assad has proven that he is still there, and a much stronger truth has emerged. She said, “It has carried out several military operations against Islamic groups and made progress in combating corruption.”
By choosing always, Hammoud said, Assad sends a message to the Syrians.
This is the time to fix everything inside Syria. The whole world has closed its doors to Syria, but now they are opening their doors to the country economically. “It is important to revitalize the Syrian economy, and with Assad, that becomes possible,” she said.
“Yesterday, the Syrian Minister of Tourism was in Saudi Arabia to attend a tourism fair, and this is a good starting point for Assad,” Hammoud added.
When it comes to the number of people who wear shirts with his name and photo, Hammoud is sure he will win. His campaign has promised to read “Hope for Work,” which translates into “Hope for Work.”
Hammoud said that even the elderly came out forcefully to show their support.
Officials said in private sessions that authorities have organized large rallies in recent days to encourage voting and that the security apparatus that supports Assad’s rule, which is dominated by the minority Alawites, has instructed state employees to vote.
“We were told we had to go to the polls or take responsibility for not voting,” said Jaafar, a government employee in Latakia, who only mentioned his first name, for fear of reprisals.
In parts of the southern city of Daraa, local figures opposed the elections and called for a general strike.
In the northwestern region of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold, where at least three million who fled the Assad bombing campaign have taken refuge, people have taken to the streets to denounce the elections, describing them as “theater.”
In northeastern Syria, where US-backed Kurdish-led forces run an autonomous, oil-rich region, officials have closed border crossings with government-controlled areas to prevent people from heading to polling stations.
They view the elections as a setback for reconciliation with a Kurdish minority that has faced decades of discrimination from one-party rule and Arab nationalist ideology.
Reuters contributed to this report.