The traffic stretched for miles, bumper to bumper, as Syrian expatriates streamed to this picturesque hillside town by the thousands Wednesday to cast ballots in a presidential election whose outcome is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
In chaotic scenes that included scuffles with Lebanese troops, many of the estimated half a million voting-age Syrians in Lebanon thronged into this town, just southeast of Beirut, to vote at the Syrian embassy. Most of them refugees from Syria’s
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post referred to an estimated half a million Syrians in Lebanon. That number refers only to Syrians of voting age in Lebanon.
Assad faces two virtually unknown challengers, neither endorsed by the opposition that seeks to overthrow him.
Sariyah Tinni, a 50-year-old refugee from Aleppo with an infectious smile, said her only regret was that she couldn't vote for Assad with her blood.
"We love him," she said, laughing as she put the envelope containing her vote in the ballot box.
The expatriate vote was being held six days before the June 3 general election is held in regime-controlled areas of Syria. Voters also cast ballots in other Syrian embassies around the world, although some countries barred the voting. They included France, Germany and several Persian Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates.
In Amman, Jordan, supporters of the Syrian opposition protested outside the embassy, attempting to keep their fellow expatriates from voting. Jordan — which, along with Lebanon, has absorbed the largest number of Syrian refugees — has allowed the Syrian opposition to open an official mission in Amman.
The Syrian vote has been widely criticized internationally, derided as a sham designed to give a patina of legitimacy to Assad's virtually assured win of a third seven-year term. The Syrian government has insisted that the election provides a political solution to the three-year conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and damaged large swaths of the country.
"This is the best time for these elections," said Firas Shanta, second secretary at the embassy in Lebanon. "This is the best response to the terrorist groups and all who stand behind them." Syrian officials regularly call Syrian opposition fighters "terrorists" or "mercenaries".
The Syrian state news agency SANA flooded its social media channels with pictures of flag-draped booths and long lines of voters in world capitals, describing them "as proof that Syrians are confident of Syria's victory over the conspiracy." It also lambasted those countries that refused to allow the vote.
The voting in Lebanon proved to be a daunting task, as Syrians braved crowds, traffic and soaring temperatures that caused cars to break down, sending people scurrying for what little shade could be found as they trudged up the highway. Some collapsed from the heat.
Security was tight, with the Lebanese army and police out in full force, parking tanks and erecting checkpoints to quell any disturbances. The forces blocked off all roads leading to the embassy and sent scores of soldiers and policemen to vainly try to maintain order.
"We've been here since 5:30 in the morning," complained one soldier, who refused to give his name. "It's crazy."
At one point, security forces used batons and sticks to beat back voters trying to scale the embassy wall.
Critics said that much of the fervor was motivated by fear. There had been rumors — dismissed by embassy officials — that those who did not vote would not be allowed back into Syria.
"When a state says, 'Lay down your arms and all will be forgiven,' you think it would deprive a refugee from his country?" asked Shanta, adding that even Syrians who had entered Lebanon illegally were allowed to return and vote in polling stations across the border.
There was only slightly less pandemonium inside the embassy, which initially planned to open its doors to voters from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. before pushing back the closing time to midnight, and then to midnight Thursday. Once inside, Syrians who had legally crossed into Lebanon were registered, then cajoled into lines, handed a ballot and envelope and sent behind a basket-weave partition to vote.
After depositing their ballots, voters were asked to dip a finger in ink, staining it to prevent them from voting again. But the procedure was quickly abandoned as the number of voters swelled.
Some voters punctuated their voting with spontaneous outbursts of ululation and chants declaring: "With soul, with blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar!"
But the election appeared as pro forma for Assad's supporters as for his enemies.
"Who is this mule, and who is that other mule?" shouted one young man as he pointed dismissively to the pictures of the other candidates. "It's Bashar and no one else!"