BEIRUT — Syrians voted on in a tightly controlled election Tuesday that reinforced President Bashar al-Assad’s tenacious hold on power, underscoring the failure of U.S. policies aimed at inducing him to step down.
Three years after Assad’s brutal suppression of nationwide protests plunged Syria into a vicious civil war, the election seems certain to deliver him a third seven-year term in office, defying President Obama’s 2011 call for him to “step aside.”
The vote came as the former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford delivered a scathing indictment of the Obama administration’s cautious approach to Syria, saying he resigned in March because he could no longer countenance the United States’ policies.
In an interview with PBS, Ford cited the administration’s inability to respond to the fast changing events unfolding on the ground, as Syria spun from an Arab Spring-style peaceful uprising into a full-fledged armed rebellion increasingly infiltrated by al-Qaeda-linked radicals.
“We were constantly behind the curve, and that’s why now we have extremist threats to our own country,” Ford said, citing the case of a Florida man who blew himself up in Syria last week.
Had the administration offered arms to moderate rebels two years ago, the opposition might control more ground than it does today, and extremists might exert less influence, he said.
“Our policy was not evolving and finally I got to a point where I could no longer defend it publicly,” Ford said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Ford is “obviously entitled to his own views” as a private citizen.
“Nobody working on it is happy with where things are,” Harf said of Syria. “We’re all frustrated, and I think you heard some of that in Ambassador Ford’s comments.”
Obama announced an unspecified increase in aid to moderate rebels in his foreign policy address last week. But Ford said he saw no evidence the extra support would make a difference to the rebels’ ability to confront the better-armed government forces.
Indeed, Assad now appears stronger than he did two years ago. Backed by Russia, Iran and volunteer militias from Lebanon and Iraq, his forces have ejected rebels from significant chunks of territory in the heart of Syria over the past year.
Tuesday’s voting leveraged his military gains into an assertion of political authority.
The opposition has denounced the election as a sham, and Western governments say they will not recognize its legitimacy. There are no serious opposition contenders or independent monitors, and voting did not take place in the many war-ravaged parts of the country that are under rebel control.
Few Western journalists were granted visas to cover the event, making it hard to ascertain the turnout or the authenticity of the scenes of exuberant crowds thronging polling stations that were broadcast on state television. The result is considered a foregone conclusion, with Assad expected to win by a landslide.
But the live footage of enthusiastic voters proclaiming their love for Assad in various locations nonetheless served as a reminder that he still controls much of the country, along with the loyalties of at least some of its citizens.
“This election sends a signal to Syrians that the regime is here to stay, that there will be no change soon,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.
“Many Syrians have already started to adapt to this new reality.”
The TV coverage switched from location to location, featuring voters waving the Syrian flag, chanting Assad’s name and demonstrating his continued sway in almost every part of Syria. Only in the province of Raqqa, controlled by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was there no voting.
“Syria is forever, and our leader is Assad,” chanted voters at a polling center in the capital of the northern province of Idlib, which is almost entirely encircled by rebels. “Today is the best day of my life. May God protect our beloved President Bashar,” a woman cradling her child told an interviewer in the southern city of Daraa, where the anti-government protests first gained momentum in 2011.
In Homs, where rebels were forced into a humiliating retreat last month, voters interviewed on television said they were casting ballots for Assad. “The immortal leader gave birth to a lion, and the lion will lead us to freedom,” said one woman, referring to Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, who together have ruled the country for four decades.
Assad was shown marking his ballot behind a white curtain with his wife, Asma, at a school in the Damascus neighborhood of Melki. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem voted alongside other officials at the Foreign Ministry. “No one in the world can impose their will upon the Syrian people,” he told the cameraman filming the scene.
State media said the voting was extended by five hours until midnight, because of the high turnout, though in the absence of independent monitoring, the real numbers may never be known.
Away from the cameras, activists described a different scene. The streets of Homs were almost completely deserted, apart from security forces manning checkpoints and roadblocks, said Abu Emad, who did not vote. Many of his friends didn’t either, though some did because they were afraid to be found out not to have voted for Assad by the country’s pervasive security forces.
Rumors that government employees who did not vote would lose their jobs and that students who boycotted the election would fail their exams encouraged voters in many places, said another Homs activist, Bibar al-Tellawi, who also didn’t vote.
Some people said, however, that they were casting ballots simply because they were resigned to the lack of alternatives to Assad’s regime.
Ahmed, 25, was among a swarm of Syrian refugees who crossed the border from Lebanon to cast ballots in the town of Jdeidat Yabous. He said he was voting for Assad not because he supports him but because he hopes the election will stabilize Syria enough for him to go home.
“I am with the opposition,” he said, refusing to give his full name because he fears for his safety. “But the regime is better than many of the rebel factions who are fighting each other.”
In areas beyond government control, the war raged on. Warplanes dropped bombs on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, Homs and Daraa and on the rebel-controlled portion of the northern city of Aleppo. The opposition Local Coordination Committees said at least 28 people had been killed. Government media reported the deaths of 11 people in rebel shelling of regime-held Aleppo, where voting was taking place.
For some Syrians who supported the uprising but have since lost hope, deciding whether to vote or not was tough.
“There is a clash inside my head between what I believe and what I should do to secure myself,” said Sarah, 29, a Damascus resident contacted by telephone who still had not made up her mind. She said her friends had urged her to vote in case soldiers at checkpoints start checking identity papers against voting records. “Why vote when the final result will be the same?” she asked.
In the end, she decided not to vote.
Suzan Haidamous in Jdeidat Yabous, Syria, and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.