Syrians head to the polls on Tuesday in a presidential election that virtually assures victory for incumbent Bashar al-Assad. While Syrian rebels and Western powers decry the vote as a sham, Syria's government has called it a "genuine opportunity" for voters to express their will.
However, for Syrians living in rebel hubs, besieged and bombed by the regime, voting is not an option. Polls are only open in regime-held areas, and although it is technically a multi-candidate election – Syria's first – the two other candidates are relative unknowns. Far from offering a political path out of conflict, the election seems likely to entrench the divisions in a shattered, war-weary nation.
“These elections should be outlawed. Under normal circumstances, elections here are a farce. I don’t understand how they plan to hold elections while still bombing the population,” says Abu Omar al-Hamwi, a member of an opposition-run local council in the province of Hama.
Mr. Hamwi, an engineer who used to work in Damascus, never missed a vote before. In Syria, abstaining was never an option, he says via Skype. “I voted five times in my life, each time out of fear of being detained or losing my job.”
Then came the Arab Spring-inspired protests in March 2011 that escalated into civil war. Now he lives in Kfar Zeita, a village in Hama province, where Human Rights Watch documented chlorine gas attacks in April that killed two people. Like many rebel-held areas, Kfar Zeita has been targeted by barrel bombs, crude explosives dropped by helicopters.
The nearest voting center is Hama city, the provincial capital, but access is cut off by the Syrian army, which has stepped up security ahead of elections. The regime has sought to broker local truces in the run up to the vote in a bid to obtain a higher turnout, a move Hamwi distrusts. “Even if they tone down the bombing before elections, it will resume in double force," he says.
100 percent approval rating
In the past, Syrians were asked to approve their presidents in single-candidate, rigged referendums. Leaders could boast approval ratings as high as 100 percent and never less than 99 percent. In 2007, Assad claimed 99.82 percent of votes cast.
Speaking via Skype, like others interviewed for this story, Ahmed, a young rebel fighter in the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, calls the election a bad joke completely detached from reality. “The candidates are an illusion. Assad will win. Even if no one votes, he has chosen himself to be president.”
While others vote, Ahmed is stuck in a city surrounded by the Syrian Army and terrorized by extremists linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The severed heads of people executed by ISIS, he says, were recently put on display at a traffic circle.
His immediate concern is not elections, but survival. “Deir Ezzor is surrounded by the regime and [ISIS] has cut off the only way out. We will all be killed,” Ahmed says.
The war in Syria has displaced a third of the population and left civilians at the mercy of two existential threats: a regime that is bombing and starving population centers into submission; and radical Islamist groups imposing harsh justice in areas under their control.
The most isolated major city in north Syria today is ISIS-held Raqqa. There, Tuesday's vote isn’t even a topic, says resident Omar al-Hweidi. A former government employee, Mr. Hweidi is indignant at the silence of the world and the complicity of Syrians who still side with Assad.
“I tell the world: talking about elections after all this bloodshed is an outright mockery of the Syrian people,” says Hweidi. “My message to those in regime-controlled areas is don’t make your vote a new bullet in a Syrian child’s chest.”
Voters living under the regime know that authorities track closely who stays home on election day. Dima Ahmad, a resident of the contested Damascus suburb of Darayya, predicts that turnout in government-held areas will be high because people are under pressure from state security forces.
“Syrians should have the right to vote without the threat of a terrorist regime’s suppressive apparatus,” says Ms. Ahmad.