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Syria holds presidential election widely condemned as rigged

June 3, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to today’s national elections in Syria, and an inside critical look at the Obama administration’s handling of that country’s crisis.

Explosions sounded in the distance outside Damascus on this election day.  But voters came out in the thousands in state-controlled parts of the country. And in a dramatic show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, many of them pricked fingers to mark ballots with their own blood.

YUSHA SALMAN (through interpreter): Assad is a symbolic leader who deserves to be elected by blood. He will lead the country to be better, safer and more stable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Assad himself appeared confident and smiling as he cast his own vote, alongside his wife, Asma. He’s expected to gain an overwhelming victory. The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, boycotted the election. And in the north and west of Syria, where rebels hold sway, voting didn’t even take place. Thousands of people had fled their cities to escape government bombing and insurgent warnings that they would try to disrupt the voting.

Instead, in the Damascus suburb of Duma, controlled by rebels, people cast fake votes for those killed by the Syrian regime.

MAN (through interpreter): We have prepared petitions and they have signatures of people who reject this rule. They are trying to strip it of its legitimacy. We don’t know how to convince that we don’t want him. We don’t want this president. This is a criminal, not a president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Across the border in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, Syrians dropped shoes in a trash can labeled ballot box to demonstrate their disgust. They’re among nearly three million people who’ve fled Syria in three years of civil war. Another 6.5 million are displaced internally.

And the opposition estimates more than 160,000 have been killed. Now the tide of war has shifted somewhat in Assad’s favor, with pro-government forces recapturing key cities, and peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian government collapsing in February. It’s all a far cry from President Obama’s longtime insistence that Assad has no future in Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we’re going to resolve this crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last year, the president did threaten military strikes, forcing the regime to give up its chemical weapons. But the U.S. has balked at giving heavy arms to the rebels, in part because Islamist militants have taken a lead role on the battlefield. Just last week, in his West Point commencement address, the president recommitted to aiding the opposition, without giving any details.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.

And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab world to push for a political resolution of this crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One key figure in the administration’s Syria policy over the past few years has been Ambassador Robert Ford. The career diplomat was installed in Damascus just ahead of the uprising, and drew the regime’s ire by attending an opposition rally in 2011.

Ultimately, he left Syria for safety reasons, but he remained critically involved, before he left government in February of this year.