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Syria’s Sham Election: A Tale of Two Cities

Bashar al-Assad's reelection might be a theatrical farce, but it is exposing the complexities that lie within the deeply divided country.

by Emma Beals
Jun 3 2014, 5:40pm

Photo via AP/Dusan Vranic

Voting in Syria’s first multi-candidate presidential election is underway in government-held areas of the country. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind about who will win. But even for the millions of Syrians in rebel-held areas and the more than nine million displaced inside and outside the country who are unable to vote, the very act of holding the controversial event is exposing the complexities that lie within the deeply divided country.

There is no sign that an election is taking place in the rebel-held northern countryside of the Aleppo governorate. From the Bab al-Salam border camp at the Turkish border down to the city of Aleppo, not a single poster of Bashar al-Assad — or the two other token candidates — hanging in the streets.

Azaz and Afrin are small neighboring cities in this northern area, located a few miles apart and separated by a small mountain range. They are similar in almost every way but one: Azaz is a mostly Arab village and Afrin is Kurdish.

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Citizens in Azaz won’t be voting in today’s election — they couldn’t if they wanted to. The city has been under the control of opposition forces since July 2012. The extremist rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of Azaz last September for six months of brutal rule, but it’s now under the control of a coalition of Islamist rebel outfits called the Islamic Front.

On the same day that Syrians voted in a widely-criticized election, children in Daraa cast their ballots in the remains of a barrel bomb. The symbolic gesture, shared by an activist group, captures the mood in a country where thousands have been killed and millions displaced since the civil war began in 2011. Video via YouTube/Daraa Media Union.

The market in the middle of town is often hit by government airstrikes. Its roof is a precarious patchwork of the corrugated iron that once covered the bustling shopping area, and a wall is caving in. But the area is nevertheless busy as residents purchase vegetables and meat.

When asked to comment on the vote, a 42-year-old produce vendor named Yahya Hassan responded to VICE News, “Which election? This is a game or a drama, not an election.”

“They attack us with bombs and we vote for him?” his son Abdul chimed in. The north was pummelled by 19 airstrikes yesterday morning ahead of the election. “Today in Tal Rifat there were three missiles, how can we vote for him?”

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Rumors have circulated that voting will take place over the hills in Afrin. The Kurdish leadership there had debated and delayed a firm decision on whether they would participate, and their last-minute denial of the election has done little to halt suspicion.

“In Afrin they vote for Bashar, and anyone who votes for Bashar is ‘shabiha,’ “ a young man in Azaz named Safr Yusef told VICE News, referring to the country’s state-sponsored militia groups.

As elections were underway in government-held regions today, the locations controlled by the opposition faced a stark contrast as aerial strikes rattled several regions, such as this aerial bombardment in Daraya. Video via Local Council of Daraya City.

On May 29, the director of security for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Afrin issued a statement to the Islamic Front saying that the Assad regime was spreading the falsehood that voting would take place in the city in order to alienate the Kurds from the rebels.

“We are with our brothers, the Syrian people in revolution against Bashar al-Assad,” the statement said.

In Qamishli, a predominantly Kurdish city on the northeastern border with Turkey, police confiscated ballot boxes that they said were placed in the area by the Syrian government. This appeared to verify the PYD’s claim that voting would not occur in Kurdish areas.

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However, Afrin residents told VICE News over the weekend that they were scared that the regime would bomb the city if they didn’t vote, and suggested that they would participate. A senior Kurdish PYD source who offered to assist with election coverage as late as Sunday night echoed this view before retracting his offer on Monday.

Syrian president and electoral candidate Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma cast their ballot in Damascus today. Video via Facebook/SawaAlassad.

Syria’s Kurdish minority are militarily strong in the areas they control. Throughout the three-year war they have managed to walk a fine line between the rebels and the Syrian regime. In the northeast of Syria, a truce exists between the remaining regime forces and the Kurdish military. In Aleppo, the Kurdish military defend the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood on the rebel-held side of the city.

ISIS is actively fighting against them in the belief that the Kurdish desire for their own state is a threat to their vision for an Islamic state in Syria. This extreme view extended to Afrin when ISIS took over Azaz. Afrin spent many months under siege during this time, and the Kurds aren’t eager to clash again with opposition and Islamist groups. They have so far managed to avoid the relentless bombardment from government airstrikes suffered by those in Azaz.

Today, the small mountain rage separating Azaz and Afrin is virtually impenetrable. The Kurdish military in Afrin, which has a history of accommodating the media, has decided that it doesn’t want journalists present during the election, saying that it would be dangerous. While contacting officials and citizens in the city was fairly easy as late as Monday, calls have today gone unanswered or have dropped when the election is mentioned.

Syrians in government-controlled areas of the country voted in the controversial presidential election today. This footage captures Damascus residents at polling stations. Video via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Afrin, which wants to maintain stability until its own election for Kurdish leaders two months away, has voluntarily closed ranks to protect itself from what it sees as a no-win situation. Whether its citizens are voting or not is at the moment impossible to tell.

At his stall in the Azaz market, a vendor named Abu Adna expressed hope for the future. Though he complained that today’s election was a farce, it was nevertheless a reminder of the democratic state he and those who rebelled against the government have sought.

“I want a real election with many people to vote for,” he said.

For now, the political future of the country will continue to be decided on the battlefield.

Follow Emma Beals on Twitter: @ejbeals