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Syria holds elections despite critics' contention that they undermine peace talks

Syria holds elections despite critics' contention that they undermine peace talks
Syrian President Bashar Assad casts his ballot in parliamentary elections withhis wife, Asma, behind him, in Damascus. (Syrian Arab New Agency)

On Syrian television, the state news agency shows an anchor roaming a polling place as people shuffle toward ballot boxes, awkwardly avoiding eye contact. Some start dancing in the middle of the crowd, while off to the side a young girl recites a poem extolling the virtues of the homeland.

"It is a duty upon every citizen to vote," Inas Qaasem, a Damascus resident, told state television at a polling station. "They have the freedom to choose, that is the most important thing."

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When asked how she had chosen her candidate, Qaasem smiled shyly and said "I don't know. I didn't read anything. I just saw that people were voting, and I decided to come and vote as well."

On Wednesday, 3,500 candidates vied for a place in Syria's 250-seat parliament — though the result is not expected to be any different from that of previous elections, which have produced a quiescent parliament.

The opposition and its backers dismissed the voting as a farce. And critics say the election undercuts the Geneva peace talks, which are supposed to result in a new constitution for the country and in President Bashar Assad transitioning out of power within the next 18 months.

"To hold parliamentary elections now… given the current conditions in the country, we believe is at best premature and not representative of the Syrian people," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a news briefing on Monday.

But Russia, Assad's main ally, welcomed the elections, saying they will prevent a "legal vacuum and a vacuum in the sphere of Syria's executive power branch" until a new constitution could be created, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement to Russian state news agency TASS.

Fighting in parts of the country forced the government to take extraordinary measures for the voting to go on. Helicopters had delivered ballot boxes to the city of Deir al Zor, a city under siege by Islamic State, approximately 248 miles northeast of the capital, Damascus. Residents of Raqqah province, which remains in the hands of Islamic State, and Idlib, where a hardline coalition of Islamist rebels and opposition hold sway, were told to vote in the nearest government area.

In what was viewed as an act of defiance, Assad made a show of voting, glad-handing his way through cheering crowds alongside his wife, Asma, before casting his ballot at the Assad library in Damascus. "Terrorism… failed in achieving [its] primary aim… to destroy the social structure of the national identity," Assad told a Syrian state news correspondent shortly after he finished voting, referring to the rebels fighting to wrest control of the country since 2011.

Voting began as peace talks in Geneva limped into a third round. Delegates from the main opposition umbrella group, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, arrived in Geneva to meet with U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. Though De Mistura has insisted that this round of negotiations will produce concrete steps to a "crucially urgent" political transition, both sides remain intransigent.

The government delegation, in another snub to the process in Geneva, is due to arrive on Friday — after the elections are over.

The opposition insists that Assad cannot be a part of any transitional government. But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Wednesday that the opposition should let go of "its dream" of a transitional government, the Associated Press reported. Such an idea would amount to a coup d'etat and would never be acceptable, he said, according to the wire service.

What little chance remains for successful negotiations may be undermined by fighting in Aleppo province, which threatened the six-week "cessation of hostilities" forged by the U.S. and Russia.

Earlier in April, militants with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front spearheaded a wide-scale offensive on Al Eis, a strategically important village 16 miles southwest of Aleppo city that overlooks the M5 highway between Aleppo and Damascus. They were joined by other Islamist groups as well as so-called moderate factions — many of whom are represented in the Geneva talks.

The village had been taken before the cease-fire, which took effect Feb. 27, during a push by pro-government troops backed by Russian warplanes.

Nusra Front is not included in the ceasefire deal or the Geneva talks.

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A counter-offensive by pro-government forces, which included Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq as well as Iranian special forces, failed to retake Al Eis and left dozens of militiamen dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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