Syrian President Assad votes in former rebel town, site of chemical attack

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 airstrikes.

Opposition is boycotting the election

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waves to supporters at a polling station in the town of Douma Wednesday. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

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 airstrikes.

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 one sect against the other, or civil war. Today, we are proving from Douma that the Syrian people are one," Assad said after voting.

However, in the southern city of Deraa, cradle of the uprising against Assad in 2011 and an opposition bastion until rebels there surrendered three years ago, local leaders called for a strike.

The election went ahead independent of a United Nations-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.

Dismissed as fraudulent by his enemies, it is set to deliver Assad seven more years in power and extend his family's rule to nearly six decades. His father, Hafez al-Assad, led Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.

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.

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.

Syrian students arrive to vote at a polling station during the presidential elections in Damascus on Wednesday. Authorities have in the last few days organized large rallies across the country in an effort to ensure a big turnout on election day, officials privately said. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

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 per cent 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 organized 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.

Conflict has killed hundreds of thousands

Douma, where Assad voted, is a Sunni Muslim town in eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus and was long a focus of defiance against his rule until it was retaken after years of siege and bombing that killed thousands of civilians.

A suspected chemical attack three years ago killed at least 50 civilians, one of several — mainly in the Ghouta area — that left hundreds dead. The United States, France and Britain responded with airstrikes against suspected chemical weapons sites.

In parts of the southern city of Deraa, local figures called for a general strike to show their opposition to the election. 

"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.

A man casts his vote during the presidential elections Wednesday at the Ministry of Information in Damascus. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

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 an Arab nationalist ideology.

Syrians demonstrate today in the opposition-held city of Idlib against what they say are illegitimate elections. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)