DAMASCUS: Syrians voted as fighting raged yesterday in a presidential election in which Bashar Al Assad is looking to tighten his grip as his forces battle rebels in a devastating three-year-old war.
Assad is facing two little-known challengers and is expected to win, despite a massive rebellion and a war which the UN has warned is likely to drag on even longer as a result of the vote.
In Damascus, the atmosphere was surreal, with people voting as the sound of shelling and explosions punctuated pro-Assad songs heard playing in the streets.
Rebels rained mortars on parts of the capital firmly under government control and the air force striking opposition areas.
Assad and his British-born wife Asma cast their ballots in central Damascus.
Billboards glorifying Assad cover the streets of Damascus although inside polling stations photographs of his two challengers — Hassan Al Nuri and Maher Al Hajjar — had been put up alongside the president’s.
There was no voting in the roughly 60 percent of the country outside government control, including large areas of second city Aleppo.
Polling was held in the heart of third city Homs, in ruins after rebel forces pulled out last month following a destructive two-year siege.
At least 162,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, and nearly half the population have fled their homes.
In the central city of Homs, security forces deployed in strength a day after a truck bomb killed 10 people in the nearby countryside.
The government said more than 15 million Syrians were eligible to take part in the election, on top of the 200,000 who voted abroad last week.
Assad allies Iran, North Korea and Russia sent observers to monitor the election, but the opposition and Nato have both dubbed it a “farce”.
The United States condemned the election as “a disgrace” carried out by a government that is “detached from reality” amid the country’s civil war.
“Bashar Al Assad has no more credibility today than he did yesterday,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing in Washington.
“Detached from reality and devoid of political participation, the Assad regime’s staged election today continued a 40-year family legacy of violent suppression that brutally crushes political dissent and fails to fulfil Syrians’ aspirations for peace and prosperity.”
The vote “does not fulfil international standards for free, fair and transparent elections and I am sure no (Nato) ally will recognise the outcome of these so-called elections,” said Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces across the country “forced people to close their shops and to hang pictures of Assad on the shop windows.”
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman added: “Fear of the regime, and specifically the threat of detention for non-voters, is pushing people to vote.”
Despite the vote, there was not let-up in army attacks on rebel areas, with air raids pounding the towns of Daraya southwest of Damascus and Douma to its northeast, and fighting flaring east of the capital, activists said.
The exiled opposition has made Assad’s departure from power a precondition for a settlement and his re-election for a new seven-year term is likely to scupper any hope of getting them back to the negotiating table any time soon.
“Dictators are not elected, they hold power by force and fear — the only motivations that Syrians have to show up for this charade,” opposition chief Ahmed Jarba wrote in the Washington Post.
Casting his ballot in Damascus, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said, however, that “a political solution to the Syrian crisis begins today”.
Waddah Abed Rabbo, chief editor of pro-Assad newspaper Al Watan, has also argued the vote could facilitate a resumption of talks.
“In Geneva, the opposition made its rejection of Assad running in the presidential election a priority. Assad was a red line that blocked everything,” he said.
“Now that he will be voted back in by a majority, there will be no objection by the authorities to discuss other issues.”