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June 03, 2014

Syria's Election Serves as Stark Reminder to Refugees: They Are Not beyond Assad's Reach

Today, the Syrian regime leads a propaganda exercise that it terms an “election.” Syrians able to vote include only those who are living in regime controlled territory and the small percentage of refugees who exited Syria with official permission. While two little known candidates are technically opposing Bashar Assad, there is no suspense about who will win and no reason to suspect that his victory this time around will bring an end to the devastating conflict in Syria any closer.

For Syrian refugees, this sham election serves as a reminder that Assad’s dictatorial power extends beyond Syria’s borders and into the neighborhoods where they have taken shelter in neighboring countries. Stories have spread about what will happen to those who do not participate in the elections.

A little over a week ago, men suspected to be Assad supporters sent from Syria began wandering around the makeshift camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “Even here in Lebanon, they’re following us,” a 35 year old Syrian refugee said.

Syrian refugees in Beirut told reporters they were approached at home by members of Hezbollah and told that if they failed to vote for Bashar Assad, they would give their names to the Syrian border officials and they would never be allowed to return home. Many express similar fears, and some report that relatives suffered repercussions such as expulsion when they failed to vote yes from abroad in a 1980 referendum for Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father.

Even amid a civil war, even beyond the borders of the nation state, fear of Assad leads thousands of Syrians to cast ballots in an election that most don’t believe to be a legitimate expression of the will of the people. Polling stations in Beirut and Amman were packed, and Beirut was brought to a halt by the massive turnout.

The Opposition has boycotted the elections and expressed dissent through protests and satire. NPR displays two posters—one that depicts Assad as mafia boss Don Corleone with the two token candidates running against him kissing his hand, and another plays off of the Assad regime’s reliance on Tehran, portraying Assad as deputy to Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s military chief.

In the Akkar district of northern Lebanon, Syrian refugees protested what they called a “blood election,” carrying signs that read, “Vote for the man who killed 200,000 Syrians!” The protests are not limited to those who have escaped. In Aleppo, the walls behind dumpsters have been decorated with graffiti advising passersby to “Cast your vote here!”