Parliamentary elections were held in Syria on Wednesday, coinciding with the opening of international peace negotiations in Geneva.
After casting his ballot with his wife, a smiling Bashar al-Assad told supporters and camera crews that “terrorists and their masters” were using politics to “hit at this social structure and strike at the national identity”.
The vote was held as Steffan de Mistura, the UN’s envoy on Syria, was set to open a third round of talks aimed at ending Syria’s five-year civil war.
This time, Mr de Mistura wants the warring parties to discuss what he calls the “mother of all issues” — political transition. The opposition insists Mr Assad step down and end four decades of family rule. The president’s supporters say that should be decided in future elections.
The opposition High Negotiations Council prepared for its first meeting with Mr de Mistura on Wednesday evening but the government delegation said it would not arrive until Friday when it had finished with the polls.
Throughout Syria’s civil war, Mr Assad’s government has stuck doggedly to the election schedule. The opposition argues such elections are meaningless amid a conflict that has left more than 250,000 people dead and in which millions have fled the country or are in opposition territories and unable to vote.
A fragile ceasefire looks close to collapse as rebels and the regime renew hostilities in a number of areas, particularly south of Aleppo. But the deal’s main brokers — the US, which backs the rebels, and Russia, which backs the regime — do not want to admit defeat and are instead hoping for a breakthrough at talks.
Some officials described the election as act of defiance by the regime against Moscow ahead of the talks, which must show concrete results in order to continue.
A regional diplomat in close contact with Russian officials said: “This time, they need to talk about serious stuff and this is the big test for both the US and Russia, in terms of the leverage they have over their sides.
“Now Russia is in an awkward position. They can’t abandon the regime — they need it to maintain their regional influence. There’s a divergence between Russia and the Syrians and now both sides are pushing to see how far they can go.”
The streets of Damascus, the Syrian capital, was plastered with election posters urging Syrians to vote for the 250 members of a parliament that is largely powerless in the presidential system.
“These elections do not mean anything,” Asaad al-Zoubi, chief negotiator for opposition’s High Negotiations Council, told Reuters. “They are illegitimate — theatre for the sake of procrastination, theatre through which the regime is trying to give itself a little legitimacy.”
Western governments including France and Britain dismissed the poll as a sham and said it defies a UN Security Council resolution that calls for elections after an 18-month transition period.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said the vote was necessary to avoid a power vacuum.