Rebel fighters, the political opposition in exile, Western powers
and Gulf Arabs say no credible vote can be held in a country where
swathes of territory are outside state control and millions have
been displaced by conflict.
State television showed long queues of people waiting to vote at
polling stations in areas under state control, as well as crowds
waving flags and portraits of the president. Assad, looking relaxed
and wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie, voted at a central
Damascus polling station with his wife Asma.
For many Syrians politics took second place to the overriding
yearning for stability after three years of war which have killed
more than 160,000 people.
"We hope for security and stability," said Hussam al-Din al Aws, an
Arabic teacher who was the first person to vote at a polling station
at a Damascus secondary school. Asked who would win, he responded:
"God willing, President Bashar al-Assad."
Islamist insurgents battling to overthrow the 48-year-old president,
who has ruled Syria since succeeding his father 14 years ago,
dismissed the vote as "illegitimate".
But the Islamic Front pledged not to target polling stations
"because we decided not to involve civilians in the conflict". It
urged other rebels to do the same.
Damascus residents said mortar shells struck residential areas in
the capital on Tuesday, most likely fired from rebel suburbs. There
were no immediate reports of casualties.
Assad is running against two relatively unknown challengers who were
approved by a parliament packed with his supporters, the first time
in half a century that Syrians have been offered a choice of
But neither of Assad's rivals, former minister Hassan al-Nouri or
parliamentarian Maher Hajjar, enjoys much support.
"It's a tragic farce," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
"The Syrians in a zone controlled by the Syrian government have a
choice of Bashar or Bashar. This man has been described by the U.N.
Secretary General as a criminal," he told France 2 television.
But for many Syrians exhausted by war, particularly the minority
Alawite, Christian and Druze communities, the Alawite president
offers a bulwark against radical Sunni Muslim insurgents and the
promise - however remote - of some form of stability.
At the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, thousands
of people stood in the sun in a tightly packed queue to vote at a
polling station set up for Syrians inside Lebanon - despite warnings
from the government in Beirut that any refugee who crossed back into
Syria would lose their refugee status.
All those who spoke to Reuters said they planned to vote for Assad,
giving him a third seven-year term.
"I came and made the decision to do this for the sake of myself and
my country,” said Ghada Makki, 43. "It is a national duty to vote so
that we overcome the crisis happening in Syria."
Some Damascus residents reported only a trickle of voters at polling
stations in the center of the city, but an activist who contacted
people in Damascus and the Druze province of Suweida said the
numbers of people voting was "scary".
"Lots of people have gone to vote and I'm not talking about the
shabbiha," he said, referring to pro-Assad militia.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, draped in a Syrian flag as he
voted, dismissed the foreign criticism. "No one in this world can
impose their will on the Syrian people," he said. "Today the path to
a political solution begins".
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Syrian officials confidently predicted a big turnout and said that a
high level of participation would be as significant as the result
"The size of the turnout is a political message," Information
Minister Omran Zoabi told Reuters on Monday night. "The armed
terrorist groups have increased their threats because they fear (a
high level of) participation," he said, referring to the rebels.
"If these terrorist groups had any popularity it would be enough to
ensure the failure of the election," he said. "But they realize they
have no popularity, so they want to affect the level of
participation so they can say the turnout was low."
Tens of thousands of Syrian expatriates and refugees cast their
ballots last week in an early round of voting, although the number
was just a fraction of the nearly 3 million refugees and other
Syrians living abroad.
The election took place three years after protests first broke out
in Syria, calling for democratic reform in a country dominated since
1970 by the Assad family. Authorities responded with force and the
uprising descended into civil war.
Assad's forces, backed by allies including Iran and Lebanon's
militant group Hezbollah, have consolidated their control in central
Syria but the insurgents and foreign jihadi fighters hold broad
expanses of northern and eastern Syria.
Peace talks in Geneva between the government and the opposition
National Coalition, which the opposition said must be based on the
principle of Assad stepping aside in favor of a transitional
government, collapsed in February.
Since then Assad's forces and Hezbollah fighters have seized back
control of former rebel strongholds on the Lebanese border, cutting
off supply lines for weapons and fighters, and the last rebels have
retreated from the center of the city of Homs.
The withdrawal from Homs has focused attention on the northern city
of Aleppo, formerly Syria's commercial hub, where fighting has
escalated in the last few weeks.
Rebel rocket fire on government-controlled areas of Aleppo killed 50
people over the weekend, while barrel bombs dropped by army
helicopters on rebel-held areas of Aleppo have killed nearly 2,000
people this year, a monitoring group said.
State media said on Monday that a car bomb killed at least 10 people
in Homs province.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dziadosz, Laila Bassam and Mariam
Karouny in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans;
Editing by Giles Elgood)
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