Syria’s Assad votes in former rebel town, site of chemical attack

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad cast his vote on Wednesday in an election expected to win him a fourth term, choosing the former rebel stronghold of Douma where a suspected chemical weapons attack in 2018 prompted Western air strikes.

The government says the election shows Syria is functioning normally despite a decade-old conflict. The fighting has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million people – about half the country’s population – from their homes.

“Syria is not what they were trying to market, one city against the other and sect against the other or civil war, today we are proving from Douma that the Syrian people are one,” Assad said after voting.

The election went ahead independently of a U.N.-led peace process that had called for polls under international supervision that would help pave the way for a new constitution and a political settlement.

The opposition, which is boycotting the vote, says Assad’s presidential rivals are deliberately low-key: former deputy cabinet minister Abdallah Saloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, head of a small, officially sanctioned opposition party.

France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States said on Tuesday the election would not be free or fair. read more

Addressing his critics, Assad said Syrians had made their feelings clear by coming out in large numbers. “The value of your opinions is zero,” he said.

At Damascus University’s Faculty of Arts, hundreds of students lined up to vote, with several buses parked outside.

“With our blood and soul we sacrifice our lives for you Bashar,” groups of them chanted before the polls opened, in scenes repeated across the 70% of Syria now under government control.

“We came to elect president Bashar al-Assad…without him Syria would not be Syria,” said Amal, a nursing student, who declined to give a second name for fear of reprisals.

Officials said privately that authorities had organised large rallies in recent days to encourage voting and the security apparatus that underpins Assad’s Alawite minority-dominated rule had instructed state employees to vote.

“We have been told we have to go to the polls or bear responsibility for not voting,” said Jafaar, a government employee in Latakia who gave his first name only, also fearing reprisals.

The Sunni Muslim town in eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus was one of the first places where pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011 and was long a focus of defiance against Assad’s rule until it was retaken after years of siege and bombing that killed thousands of civilians.

The suspected chemical attack in April, 2018 killed at least fifty civilians, one of several since the start of the conflict mainly in the Ghouta area that left hundreds dead, including many women and children. The United States, France and Britain responded with air strikes against suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

‘DAY OF ANGER’

In parts of the southern city of Deraa, the scene of the first anti-Assad protests, local figures called for a general strike to show their opposition to the election. Assad first took power in 2000 on the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled for 30 years before that.

“All people reject the rule of the son of Hafez,” read graffiti scribbled across several towns in southern Syria, the last part of the country to fall to Assad under Russian-brokered agreements, where former rebels still resist his rule.

In northwestern Idlib, where Turkey-backed factions administer the last rebel enclave where at least three million of those who fled Assad’s bombing campaign are sheltering, people took to the streets to denounce the election “theatre”.

“It’s a day of anger, let’s participate and raise our voices in the squares of freedom to announce our rejection of the criminal Assad and his elections,” said one of the posters hung in a rebel-held town along the border with Turkey.

In northeast Syria, where U.S. backed Kurdish-led forces administer an autonomous oil-rich region, officials closed border crossings with government held areas to prevent people from heading to polling stations in state-run areas.

They said the election was a setback to reconciliation with a Kurdish minority that has faced decades of ethnic discrimination from one party rule espousing Arab nationalist ideology.

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