Syria: Fighting a civil war through the ballot box

Refugees are going to extraordinary lengths to vote in an election that Bashar al-Assad is almost certain to win. Patrick Cockburn reports that many fear the consequences of being on the wrong side in a shifting conflict

Thousands of Syrians, desperate to vote for President Bashar al-Assad, mobbed the Syrian embassy in Beirut on Wednesday, struggling with Lebanese soldiers as they tried to reach four ballot boxes inside the embassy building set high on a hill overlooking the city.

The well-guarded embassy is difficult to reach at the best of times, and it does not take many of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon to try to enter it at the same time to create traffic jams and for crowds to get out of control.

Chanting “With our souls, with our blood we will sacrifice for you Bashar” and “Long live Syria”, the crowds were intending to vote early in the 3 June election. Some will be genuine supporters of Mr Assad, who is seeking a third seven-year term, while others believe that if they do not vote they may have difficulty renewing their passports or face other bureaucratic problems.

Read more
US to increase support for Syrian opposition  

“I came to vote for President Bashar Assad because we love him and he is a good man,” said Abraham Dekermenjian, a Syrian of Armenian descent from the war-devastated city of Aleppo.

Wahid Ibrahim al-Beik, 30, who works as a minibus driver in Lebanon, had a Syrian flag tied around his neck and a headband that read: “Syria is protected by God.”

“I am going to vote with my blood. I am going to vote for his excellency President Bashar Assad because there is no one like him and we don’t accept anyone other than him,” he said.

The clashes at the embassy at Yarze, close to the Lebanese Defence Ministry, underline the desperation of Syrian refugees who exist in a sort of legal limbo. Some said they had been threatened by Syrian officials that they or their relatives at home would face punishment if they did nor vote. But given the extreme confusion, as soldiers lashed out with batons as they tried to control the masses of people making for the small number of ballot boxes, it would be impossible for anybody to know who had voted.

A fireman sprays water on Syrian expatriates living in Lebanon to keep them cool, as they arrive to cast their ballots in their country's presidential elections (Getty) A fireman sprays water on Syrian expatriates living in Lebanon to keep them cool, as they arrive to cast their ballots in their country's presidential elections (Getty)

The presidential election – which Mr Assad will inevitably win – is a public rejection of demands by the opposition and its foreign backers that he should leave power. The US insisted that the only purpose of the Geneva II peace talks in February was to discuss a political transition. It was never likely that Mr Assad would accept this, as he currently holds 13 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals and his forces are slowly advancing in many parts of the country.

It is impossible to know, in the middle of a savage civil war, about the true state of public opinion in Syria or among Syrian refugees abroad. In private, Syrians often express loathing for both government and opposition for ruining the country.

Mr Assad has a hard core of support among Syria’s minorities such as his own Alawite community, Christians, Shia and Kurds who believe that, if the opposition wins, they will be massacred or forced to flee. But many Sunni are fearful of what would happen if al-Qa’ida type jihadists such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), which dominate rebel-held areas, were to take power.

Syrians have seen pictures of opponents of Isis who were crucified in a main square in the Euphrates city of Raqqa recently. In Deir ez-Zor, another city in the east, JAN militants from the local Sharia court beat and detained women who were not wearing full Islamic dress and who had listened to music at a wedding party in a private house.

People started arriving at dawn at the embassy in Beirut, which is reached by walking up a steep slope and then through a search area before getting to the embassy building. Some had walked several miles because the road was blocked by cars and pick-ups carrying the Syrian white-red-black flag.

Syrians know that it is wise to show fulsome and very visible support for which ever side in the civil war it is politic to cultivate. Thus, the metal gratings of shops in Damascus have all been painted with the national colours.

People stand near a damaged site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, on Wednesday (Reuters) People stand near a damaged site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, on Wednesday (Reuters)
The US may soon sign off on training and equipping supposedly moderate rebel forces, according to officials in Washington, while trying to keep sophisticated weapons out of the hands of al-Qa’ida- linked movements. Rebels report being taken to Ankara where they are questioned by men whose identity they do not know but who they suspect are CIA. If they persuade their interrogators they are suitable, they are then flown to Qatar to be trained in guerrilla techniques such as ambushes and the use of high-powered weapons.

For some time the US and Saudi Arabia have been trying in vain to create a southern front in Jordan which would operate against the Syrian army.

Assad’s forces have had a series of successes this year by sealing off rebel-held areas in Damascus and Homs and then negotiating a rebel withdrawal or ceasefire. It recently took over the Old City of Homs, which it had besieged for two years, and 1,200 rebel fighters were allowed to withdraw with their personal weapons. In return, the rebels allowed humanitarian convoys to reach two besieged pro-government Shia towns, Nobl and Zahraa, west of Aleppo, and released pro-government captives.

The Syrian army is still short of combat troops and attempts to keep its casualties low by sealing off and bombarding rebel enclaves. The rebel military forces have been seeking to show that they still have the capability to strike back in the lead-up to the presidential election by blowing up the Carlton Citadel Hotel in Aleppo with an underground mine on 8 May, killing some 30 soldiers. They also fired a mortar bomb into a pro-Assad election rally in Deraa in the south, killing at least 20 people.

Government success in getting people to vote and the opposition’s attempts to stop them are demonstration of power rather than an exercise in democracy.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star