Syrians in Lebanon voting in multitudes for Assad

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YARZE, Lebanon -- Syrians thronged their embassy in Lebanon on Wednesday to cast ballots for President Bashar Assad, offering a forceful affirmation of his tightening grip on power after three years of conflict.

The voting by Syrian expatriates, in Lebanon and in other embassies around the world, came ahead of Tuesday's nationwide presidential election, which Assad is expected to win easily because there are no serious challengers.

After more than a year of steady military gains by government loyalists, the vote is seen as a chance for Assad also to claim a political victory over his opponents, who have struggled in the past year to make meaningful progress on the battlefield or to forge a coherent alternative to his rule.

Coming on a day when President Barack Obama signaled in a major foreign policy address that he would offer no significant new assistance for the rebels battling to topple Assad, the tumult at the embassy in Lebanon seemed to reinforce the sense that there is no immediate end in sight to Assad's rule.

The large turnout was spurred in part by a widespread rumor that those who do not vote will not be allowed to return home, a question of growing concern for those among the 1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon who support the opposition but are losing hope that the rebels will prevail. Syrian authorities did not say this would be the case, but with all voters having to submit their identity papers to the embassy for registration, it is feasible that the government will know who voted and who did not.

"We tried to change things, but we couldn't," said Mohammed al-Aboud, 23, adding that he voted for Assad in part to ensure that he can return to Syria one day, but also because he feels that there is no other choice if the violence is to end. "It was a good revolution to begin with. But then they started killing people, and it went wrong."

Fistfights and scuffles erupted as desperate people fought to gain admission to the embassy grounds, prompting Lebanese security guards to beat them back with batons. Roads were clogged for miles by people arriving in buses, in cars and on foot.

To accommodate the large numbers, the embassy announced that it was extending voting by a day. Although no figures were available, Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, expressed satisfaction with the turnout.

"Syria is proud of its people and proud of their newfound love for their country," he told reporters.

Many voters were diehard Assad supporters who showed up in convoys, honking horns, waving the president's picture and shouting slogans.

"Our blood, our souls, we pledge to you, Bashar," chanted a knot of men as they climbed the last stretch of hill leading to the embassy.

Many others were refugees who had fled the violence and now fear that they may never go home.

"We want to go back to our country. Everyone knows that if you don't vote, you can't go home," said a man from Damascus who had traveled from a refugee camp in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley along with half a dozen members of his extended family. They declined to give their names for fear of retribution.

The view that Assad is the only one who can end the killing was widely expressed.

"Bashar is the only one who stood beside Syria, and he is the only one who can end the fighting," said Firas Rasheed, 30, a laborer who is from the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour and works in Lebanon.

Although there were three candidates on the ballot, none of the voters interviewed said they were picking anyone other than Assad. The Syrian constitution has been carefully crafted to exclude political opponents, and the two other candidates, Hassan al-Nouri and Maher al-Hajjar, were permitted to run only after being vetted by the ruling Baath Party and the security apparatus.

The rules for voting were lax, with many people casting multiple ballots.

Voting in embassies elsewhere was lighter. In Jordan, which expelled the Syrian ambassador this week, tensions ran high between pro- and anti-Assad Syrians, as a few hundred people showed up. Several said they hoped that the vote would unite Syrians.


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