Thousands of Syrians lined up outside polling stations in parts of their war-torn country to cast votes on Wednesday, in elections dismissed as a sham and guaranteed to give longtime President Bashar Assad a fourth seven-year term.
The vote's legitimacy was challenged by throngs of Syrians living outside of government-controlled areas, who rallied to denounce what they called a `farcical play' that ignores the country's reality.
Torn by a decade-old conflict, Syria is divided into areas controlled by the government, rebel fighters and foreign troops, all competing for influence and resources.
Half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced mostly living outside of government-controlled areas where they won't vote. Over 5 million were driven out and live in neighboring countries where the vote is not held. The fighting has left nearly half a million dead and hundreds of thousands detained or missing.
Western countries also dismissed the election as illegitimate, saying it violates UN resolutions adopted to resolve the crisis through negotiations between the government and opposition groups, and the drafting of a new charter.
`The Assad regime's so-called presidential election is neither free nor fair,' US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a Twitter post Wednesday. `The US joins France, Germany, Italy, and the UK in calling for the rejection of the regime's attempts to regain legitimacy without respecting the Syrian people's human rights and freedoms.'
Assad blasted the criticism saying those who dismiss the vote as illegitimate have `colonial history.'
`We as a state are not concerned about such statements,' Assad said after casting his ballot in the Damascus suburb of Douma where he arrived with his wife Asma, driving his own car.
The area was one of the main rebel strongholds until it was retaken by government forces in 2018. It was the scene of an alleged poison gas attack in April 2018 that triggered strikes by the US, Britain and France.
The vote is the second presidential election since the country's conflict began 10 years ago.
This time, it comes after the 55-year-old Assad weathered what at one point appeared to be an imminent threat from western and regional-backed armed rebels within miles of the capital.
Since the 2014 vote, Russia and Iran have thrown their military and financial capabilities behind Assad's government and troops pushing back military threats and propping up his cash-strapped government facing western sanctions.
Assad took over in 2000 from his father Hafez, who ruled before that for 30 years. The civil war broke out in 2011 when Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgency in response to a brutal military crackdown.
Wednesday's vote is held under Syria's current constitution, disregarding UN Security Council Resolution 2254 from 2015, which unanimously endorsed a political process and road map to peace that begins with drafting a new constitution and ends with UN-supervised elections.
Two other little-known figures, Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Marie, are also running for the country's top post. But competition with Assad is largely seen as symbolic.
Starting at 7 a.m., thousands began arriving at polling stations in Damascus, thronging streets festooned with giant posters of Assad and banners praising his rule. Most were not wearing masks, despite a coronavirus outbreak.
`We choose the future. We choose Bashar Assad,' read one of thousands of banners raised in the capital Damascus.
`I am here to vote because it is a national duty to choose a president who will lead us in the coming period,' said civil servant Muhannad Helou, 38, who said he voted for Assad.
Voting was extended until midnight in 12,102 polling stations.
No vote will be held in northeast Syria, controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters, or in the northwestern province of Idlib the last major rebel stronghold.
In rebel-held Idlib city, thousands took to the streets in a boisterous rally, chanting against Assad and reviving slogans used in the early days of the uprising against him.
`I woke up this morning to find Bashar Assad electing himself. What a farce!' said Salwa Abdel-Rahman, who wore a revolution flag around her neck and a headband that read: `No to racism and tyranny.' She was displaced from Aleppo in 2012.
Challenges facing Assad remain tremendous.
The vote this year comes as Syria's economy is in free fall as a result of a decade of war, Western sanctions, government corruption and the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria's main link with the outside world.
Edward Denhert, Middle Eastern research analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a note that the election will deepen the rift between Syria and the West and that consequently, Assad will pivot further toward its Russian and Iranian backers as well as China.
The Biden administration has said it will not recognize the result of the election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the United Nations, and representative of Syrian society.
`The UN is not involved in this election and has no mandate to be,' UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the UN Security Council in a briefing Wednesday. `It is a source of regret that, despite our best efforts, there has been little progress this month, and indeed at all, in advancing the different dimensions of resolution 2254,' he added.
Pedersen had previously singled out the Syrian government for blocking progress in the constitutional committee established to draft a new constitution.
Even in government-held areas, there was opposition to the vote. Many residents of the restive southern province of Daraa and nearby Sweida called the vote illegitimate.
Activists and opposition media platforms reported a general strike for the second day Wednesday in villages and towns in Daraa province to protest the elections and the ballot boxes in their area.