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Desperate to cast a ballot, Syrians jam up embassy district in Beirut (+video)

Advance voting in Syria's presidential election begins today. Although there is widespread skepticism about the legitimacy of the vote, enthusiasm was high among exiles in Lebanon.

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    Syrians who live in Lebanon gather in front of the Syrian embassy to vote in the presidential election in Yarze, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 28, 2014.
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Clinching months of tactical victories for the Syrian regime, next week's presidential election kicks off today with advance voting for Syrians living overseas. 

Leading the ballot is President Bashar al-Assad, who has led the country through a three-year civil war that has killed an estimated 160,000 people, caused an exodus of 3 million, and displaced internally many more. 

Mr. Assad is heading into the election with renewed confidence after his forces regained control of the city of Homs in early May, the Monitor reports:

The retreat of the estimated 1,200 rebels from Syria's third-largest city is perhaps the crowning moment of the Assad regime’s year-long campaign to claw back opposition-held territory. With Homs firmly under its control for the first time in more than two years, the Assad regime has further consolidated its grip on the crucial corridor linking Damascus to Syria's Mediterranean ports. It also ensures access to the coastal mountain chain that is home to the Alawite sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

The victory affords Syria's leader renewed confidence ahead of a presidential election on June 3 in which he seeks another seven-year term to shore up his legitimacy.

The official election date is June 3. International observers have criticized the vote as illegitimate and impossible to hold during a civil war, The New York Times reports.

Mr. Assad is seeking a third seven-year term after taking over from his father, Hafez, in 2000. Neither of his little-known opponents, Hassan el-Nuri and Maher al-Najjar, is considered to have any chance of winning. The United States and the Syrian opposition have dismissed the election as a sham which, analysts said, is apparently intended to impart a sense of legitimacy to a government that tolerated no real dissent before the uprising and has cracked down unrelentingly on its opponents since the first stirrings of revolt in March 2011.

That hasn’t slowed the momentum. Today thousands of Syrian exiles in Lebanon jammed the streets outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut to cast their ballot on the first day of expatriate voting.

Most of those gathered said they were voting for Assad. “My blood type is Bashar,” Ahmed al-Ali, a restaurant worker from Aleppo told the Times. “I eat bread Bashar brings to Syria. Every country has mistakes, Bashar is going to fix all our mistakes,” said Souad Abu Hilal, a beautician.

The Associated Press reports that the scene at the Syrian embassy was chaotic. Lebanese soldiers had to beat back Syrians clamoring to enter the embassy compound, and inside, voters overwhelmed the limited voting facilities:

Voters pushed inside a small room with four ballot boxes and voted publicly. At times, election workers were seen grabbing the ballots and stuffing them inside the boxes themselves. No one appeared to be checking who was voting or how many times. 

But underneath the apparent enthusiasm for Assad was a measure of fear, writes Lebanon’s Daily Star.

... [T]he whispers behind the scenes were not as glorifying to Assad as the public comments. A Syrian national told The Daily Star that he took part in the election out of fear that the regime would allow them to return to Syria.

“I am scared that they may list my name at the border and prevent me from going to Syria to see my family when I need to,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

The Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, told the Daily Star that the embassy would likely need to extend the polling hours “due to the extremely high turnout.”  Voters created traffic jams near the polling stations, with drivers parking their cars and walking the rest of the way, according to the Daily Star. 

Michel Kilo, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, alleged that the high turnout was partly in response to threats from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization that has been fighting in Syria on the regime's behalf. It played a crucial role in the recapture of Homs. 

“The Syrians never voted in such intensity before, there are Syrians [who have been] living in Lebanon for a long time and they fear to go to Syria without voting so that the regime would not reprimand them,” he said. “We also got information that Hezbollah threatened the Syrians that it would bomb the areas where they are staying if they do not vote."

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