Syria’s last major rebel-held enclave protests against Assad on election day

About three million people in Idlib were not given the opportunity to vote in Wednesday's presidential election

'War criminal, not presidential candidate': Idlib protests Syrian elections

'War criminal, not presidential candidate': Idlib protests Syrian elections
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Thousands of people gathered in Syria's rebel-held Idlib on Wednesday to protest against a presidential election described as illegitimate by opposition activists and the US.

Demonstrators waving flags met in the northern city’s Al Saba Bahraat Square to vent their frustration at the country’s decade-long civil war and an election they are excluded from because they live in rebel-held territory.

"I am, of course, dreaming and wishing of returning to my home and my country," said Abu Shaheed, who fled Darayya, on the outskirts of Damascus, in 2016 after a four-year government siege of the rebel-held city.

Abu Shaheed and his three-year-old daughter were taking part in the colourful Idlib protest. Their chanted slogans against the Syrian regime were reflected on placards all around. These read: "Syria is for us, not for the Assads" and "no legality for a criminal".

“There is no credibility at all. The regime tries to paint its image in the international community after its hands have been bloodstained,” Abu Shaheed said.

He said the international community failed to take any serious steps to prosecute President Bashar Al Assad for crimes committed against the Syrian people.

"The positive attitude was to provide only some humanitarian assistance to the affected people, but that's not enough."

The US has said it will not recognise the result of the election unless the vote is free, fair, supervised by the UN and representative of Syrian society. The UN said it was not supervising the election and was disappointed at the lack of progress towards peace.

Mr Al Assad, voting in Douma, a former rebel stronghold recaptured by the government and the site of a suspected chemical attack that killed hundreds in 2018, said the opinions of western nations on the legality of the elections had "zero value".

More than 387,000 people have been killed since the Arab uprisings sparked the conflict in 2011, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor says.

More than 5.6 million Syrians fled abroad and 6.7 million are displaced internally, many leaving government-held areas in favour of rebel-held territory in the north-west.

Abu Alaa, who was displaced from Homs five years ago, said the election would only tighten Mr Al Assad’s grip on power, despite the presence of two other presidential candidates.

"This election will delay our return home because it extends the life of the regime," he told The National.

"Whoever is elected, [Mr Al Assad] is involved in the suffering of the people."

Abu Alaa called on the international community to come to the aid of Syrians, saying even those who were eligible to vote were under pressure from the security services to vote in favour of Mr Al Assad, who has been in power for more than two decades.

"If there's an international body overseeing the elections, I'll share and express my opinion but as a people's movement activist, I would be arrested immediately,” he said.

We spent two years inside the camp. Everyone here rejects the election

“The position of the international community [towards the elections] has been weak, and there have been no firm actions to end our suffering."

Abd Alsalam Al Yusuf, director of Al Taah camp, which hosts 230 families, said those who joined the protests were free to express their opinion.

"We spent two years inside the camp. Everyone here rejects the election. How do we elect who deserted us and put us in these tents?"

“I cannot support any of these candidates. Bashar Al Assad will surely win."

Although Abu Alaa sees a frightening and uncertain future, except in the event of an international intervention to implement UN resolutions. Abu Shaheed sees Syria being partitioned between rebel-held and Assad-controlled areas.

"I do not want a government seeking power. I want a government protecting me," he said.

Women also played a large role in the protests, part of civil society organisations that sprang up after Idlib’s capture by rebel forces in 2015.

"We expect that the social disintegration resulting from forced displacement will continue to deepen,” Political Empowerment Programme Co-ordinator Susan Al Saeed said.

“As well as increasing economic suffering, we also expect increased migration out of Syria.”