Syrians in Lebanon vote for president for 2nd day
BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Syrians living in Lebanon lined up outside their embassy near Beirut on Thursday to vote ahead of their country’s presidential election as expat balloting was extended for another day in the neighboring country.
The situation around the hilltop embassy in the town of Yarze, southeast of the Lebanese capital, appeared more orderly a day after Syrian voters clashed with Lebanese troops outside the embassy.
Lebanese troops patrolled the area as hundreds of people — some waving Syrian flags and holding pictures of President Bashar Assad — patiently waited in two lines to go into the embassy to vote ahead of the June 3 election.
Most voters appeared to be supporters of Assad, who is widely expected to get a third seven-year term in the vote that has been criticized by the West and Syria’s opposition because it is taking place amid a civil war.
Wrapped in a Syrian flag, one of the president’s supporters in Lebanon said he was voting because he hoped the election would end the war and see life return to normal after more than three years of fighting that has killed an estimated 160,000 people.
“I hope Syria goes back to the way it was and that we will live in security and stability together, the way we used to,” said the voter, who hails from the central city of Homs. He only gave his first name, Riad, for fear of harassment.
The conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, but escalated into a civil war when some in the opposition took up arms after the government launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.
The fighting has destroyed the economy and left the country’s cities in ruins. It has also uprooted nearly a third of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million from their homes, turning 2.5 million Syrians into refugees in neighboring countries.
Backed by his Iranian allies and the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, Assad’s forces have in recent months gained the upper hand in the fighting, seizing key territory near the capital Damascus and the country’s center.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. will increase assistance to the Syrian opposition, opening the way for the likely training and possibly equipping of moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad.
Nevertheless, Assad has insisted on holding elections amid the carnage, running against two little-known candidates seen as symbolic contenders. In previous votes, Assad was the sole candidate with people casting yes-or-no ballots.
Throughout the three-year conflict, Assad has maintained significant support among large sections of the population, particularly among his fellow Alawites, Christians and other religious minorities. That support has been reinforced as Islamic militants have gained more strength among the rebels fighting to topple him.
Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the overwhelming majority of rebels are Sunni Muslims.
Associated Press cameramen Fadi Tawil in Yarze, Lebanon, contributed to this report.