Bashar Assad Says Syria 'Not Concerned' About Calls That Presidential Election is Illegitimate

Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Wednesday his country is "not concerned" about calls from Western countries that the presidential election, which is likely to ensure his fourth seven-year term, is illegitimate, the Associated Press reported.

Syria's leadership has remained in the Assad family for five decades. Citizens in government-controlled areas of the war-torn nation headed to polling stations on Wednesday to vote in the second presidential election since civil war broke out in 2011 after protests emerged against the Assad family's rule.

"The Assad regime's so-called presidential election is neither free nor fair," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. "The U.S. joins France, Germany, Italy, and the UK in calling for the rejection of the regime's attempts to regain legitimacy without respecting the Syrian people's human rights and freedoms."

Assad blasted countries that have dismissed the vote as illegitimate and said, "We as a state are not concerned about such statements."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Syrian President Bashar Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad greets supporters after casting his vote at a polling station in Douma, near the capital Damascus, on May 26, 2021, as voting began across Syria. Assad said Syria is "not concerned" over assertions that the presidential election is illegitimate. Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images

The vote has also been dismissed as a sham by the opposition.

Assad fired back at criticisms from Western countries and said most of them "have colonial history." He has been Syria's leader since 2000 after his father Hafez's rule.

He spoke Wednesday morning after casting his ballot in the Damascus suburb of Douma. The area was one of the main rebel strongholds in the country until it was retaken by government forces in 2018. It was the scene of an alleged poison gas attack in April 2018 that triggered strikes by the U.S., Britain and France.

"The vote that we are performing today would not have happened had it not been for the thousands of martyrs that fell while defending the land and people," Assad said.

The 55-year-old Assad arrived at the polling station with his wife, Asma, driving his own car.

Hafez ruled before Assad for 30 years. Despite the war, which seemed at one point to threaten his rule, Assad remained in power supported by regional powerhouse Iran and Russia, which sent in military advisers and air power to push back the armed opposition.

Two other little-known figures, Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmad Marie, are also running for the country's top post. But competition with Assad is largely seen as symbolic in a country where election results are known in advance.

Starting at 7 a.m., thousands began arriving at polling stations in Damascus, thronging streets festooned with giant posters of Assad and banners praising his rule. Most were not wearing masks, despite a coronavirus outbreak in the country.

"We choose the future. We choose Bashar Assad," read one of thousands of banners raised in the capital Damascus.

"I am here to vote because it is a national duty to choose a president who will lead us in the coming period," said civil servant Muhannad Helou, 38, who said he voted for Assad.

No vote will be held in northeast Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters, or in the northwestern province of Idlib that is the last major rebel stronghold in the country.

Still, in some parts of government-held areas, including the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, many have rejected the vote calling it "illegitimate."

Activists and opposition media platforms reported a general strike for the second day Wednesday in a number of villages and towns in Daraa province, to protest against holding the elections and placing ballot boxes in the area, where government security agencies are deployed.

The Syrian Democratic Council that runs daily affairs in northeast Syria said in a statement it will not take part in the vote "before political solutions in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, release of detainees, return of displaced and putting the basis for a political structure far away from tyranny."

In the rebel-held city of Idlib, thousands took to the streets in a boisterous rally in which they chanted songs against Assad and revived slogans used in the early days of the uprising against him. The rally was organized to denounce the elections, which protesters called "farcical" and illegitimate.

"I woke up this morning to find Bashar Assad electing himself. What a farce!" said Salwa Abdel-Rahman, who wore a revolution flag around her neck and a headband that read: "No to racism and tyranny." She was displaced from Aleppo in 2012.

"Syria's presidential election is not expected to be free, fair, or legitimate," said Edward Denhert, Middle Eastern research analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit. In a note, he said the sham election will stir renewed condemnation from the U.S. and some EU nations, deepening the rift between Syria and the West.

"Consequently, Mr Assad's regime will be forced to pivot further towards its Russian and Iranian backers, and increasingly towards China," Denhert said.

The vote this year comes as Syria's economy is in free fall as a result of a decade of war, Western sanctions, government corruption and the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria's main link with the outside world.

The Biden administration has said it will not recognize the result of the Syrian election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the United Nation and represents all of Syrian society.

"We are not involved in these elections...in any way, and we, of course, have no mandate to be," U.N. secretary-general's spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the United Nations on Tuesday.

Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Rahmoun said 12,102 polling stations were set up in all the Syrian governorates. He said there are more than 18 million eligible voters in Syria and abroad. Syrians living abroad voted last week.

Syria had a population of 23 million before the conflict broke out a decade ago. The fighting has left nearly half a million dead and half the country's population displaced, more than 5 million of them refugees outside Syria.

Protests against Assad family rule were Arab Spring-inspired and turned into an armed insurgency in response to a brutal military crackdown.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and His Wife
Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife, Asma, vote at a polling station during the presidential election, in the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region, near the Syrian capital Damascus, on May 26, 2021. Syrians headed to polling stations early Wednesday to vote in the second presidential elections since the deadly conflict began in the country. Hassan Ammar/AP Photo