Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on course Wednesday to claim a sweeping victory in an election held amid raging conflict that Washington called a “disgrace”.
Official results are only expected to be announced later this week, but a landslide win for Assad over two little-known challengers has never been in doubt.
There was no election Tuesday in the roughly 60 percent of the country outside government control, including large areas of second city Aleppo.
And in government-held areas, people cast their votes despite nationwide violence that killed 209 people on polling day, including 71 civilians, a monitor said.
State media trumpeted a big turnout which they said prompted polling stations to be kept open until midnight — five hours later than scheduled.
Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said “millions” had voted, “defying terrorism and its mortars, rockets, car bombs and suicide attackers, to prove the legitimacy” of Assad for a new seven-year term.
It put turnout at 70 percent in some provinces, although opposition activists were quick to charge that people voted out of fear not conviction.
Assad “thanked all the Syrians who turned out en masse to vote.”
– ‘Hope and defiance’ –
His office’s Facebook page said Syrians “are proving day after day their belief in a culture of life, hope and defiance, in the face of a culture of death, terrorism and narrow-mindedness.”
Of the 27 people killed in government-held areas on election day, 19 died in Aleppo, three of them children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Three more people died in Damascus as rebels fired 130 mortar rounds from the suburbs.
The sound of the mortar bombs and government strikes punctuated voting in the capital throughout the day.
Nine medical workers were killed in a raid on Zibdin, an opposition-held town near Damascus, the Observatory said.
The US said it was a “disgrace” to hold an election in the midst of a three-year-old war that has killed more than 162,000 people and driven millions from their homes.
Tuesday’s election had “intentionally denied millions of Syrians the right to vote,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
But opposition activists have criticised Washington for failing to take decisive action on the conflict, despite its repeated calls for Assad to step down.
In a swipe against the US administration, former American ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN he had retired last month after almost three years working with the opposition because he could no longer defend US policy.
– ‘Address war root causes’ –
“We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” Ford said.
He was alluding to the extremists in rebel-held areas, whose presence has made Washington reticent to arm moderate rebels.
But Ford said moderate rebels “need to get the tools they must have to change the balance on the ground, at least in some localities.”
He also said rebels are now not just fighting the regime, but also the jihadists.
Meanwhile Assad ally Moscow, which has welcomed the election as a step towards a political solution, called for the speedy appointment of a new UN envoy.
Lakhdar Brahimi, who brokered two rounds of abortive peace talks between Damascus and the opposition this year, stepped down on Saturday saying his mediation had reached stalemate.
He had infuriated Damascus by criticising Tuesday’s election as an obstacle to his peace efforts.
Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin, who has just taken over the Security Council’s chairmanship, said it would be “fundamentally flawed” to ignore the need for a quick successor to Brahimi to relaunch peace efforts.
“We believe that, after just two five-day rounds of talks, to say that things are so stalemated that there is no need to continue those negotiations, this is not to us entirely persuasive.”
Moscow, which sent observers to monitor Tuesday’s election, has infuriated the West by four times vetoing draft Security Council resolutions in defence of its Damascus ally.
For his part, Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth tweeted: “Syria scrapes bottom in quest for legitimacy pulling in election observers from N(orth) Korea, Iran, Russia and Zimbabwe.”