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What Syria’s President Seeks From A Not-So-Democratic Election

Women walk past election posters of Syria's President Bashar Assad on a Damascus street on Monday. Despite the civil war, the election will be held Tuesday in areas controlled by Assad's government. Assad became president after his father's death in 2000 and is assured of winning a third seven-year term.

Syrian refugees at the Karkamis camp near the town of Gaziantep, Turkey, just across the border from Syria. At least 2.5 million Syrian's have fled their homeland due to the civil war and millions more have been displaced inside Syria.

Residents of Homs return to survey the damage to their city on May 27. Three weeks earlier, rebels withdrew under a truce and government forces retook control. Homs was considered the birthplace of uprising against Assad, and retaking it was considered an an important victory for the government.

The Turkish border city of Gaziantep becomes more Syrian by the day. New waves of refugees have arrived since January. In the market, Syrian craftsman hammer out copper pots and plates, as they did back home in Aleppo.

"We left to save our children," says Ali Abu Hassan. "The bombs come every day."

Back in Syria, President Hafez Assad is universally expected win in Tuesday's election, a sign to Hassan and his family that they should expect an indefinite stay in Turkey alongside the swelling ranks of refugees. Turkish officials have now floated a proposal for an eight-year residency permit for Syrians, replacing the one-year card.

Last year, Turkey was convinced Assad would go soon. But no one in Turkey is saying that now. All of Syria's neighbors are adjusting policy to the new time line.

The Syrian ballot is taking place during a civil war that's in it's fourth year and is still raging.

Assad won his two previous seven-year presidential terms facing no competition. This time, there are two other names on the ballot, but they are little known and have no chance. In addition, the voting is only taking place in areas that the Assad regime controls.

The election has galvanized international attention, says Josh Landis, a long-time Syria analyst who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. But it is more a message than a vote, to friends and foes alike, he says.

"It has nothing to do with democracy," Landis says. "This is about power – and in showing your enemies you can make everyone under your control line up and kiss your hand."

"It's a fight to the death between Syrians religious minorities and the Sunni majority," Landis adds. Assad is a member of the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they make up a little more than 10 percent of the Syrian population.

The Alawites "feel they could be pushed out. It doesn't matter if Assad is presiding over a broken country," Landis says.

Assad Still Has Allies

The vote comes as Assad weathers the storm with the help of strong allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. His allies also support the election. Russia is sending election monitors.

In recent weeks, the city of Homs, which represented the heart of the uprising, was retaken by Assad's army. The election in Homs is a propaganda coup for a regime pledging security and stability.

But can the regime deliver?

Analyst Brian Katulis says that's not likely. After a recent research trip to the region, he says Syria, by all measures, is a failed state.

"It's a very broken country. And it is probably the most disastrous situation the whole world is facing in terms of the human costs. so, it's not a great prize," says Katulis, of the Center for American Progress.

At an opposition radio station in Gaziantep, Syrian activists are working on songs and reports to broadcast into Syria on election day.

There are more than a dozen opposition media outlets supported by the Turks and funded by Western donors, including the United States. The message is, "Don't vote out of fear."

But war is more the focus here than the vote. Assad's allies still support a military victory as the regime gains more territory than it loses.

But Noah Bonsi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says that doesn't mean an Assad military victory. Overall, the battlefield remains a stalemate, he says.

"The regime is not prepared, and perhaps it's not even capable of making the concessions necessary that would enable it to cash in politically on its military progress," he says.

Large parts of the country are in ruins, the economic losses are catastrophic, and pro-Assad rallies do not change the facts on the ground, he says.

"After all the media attention has died down – the elections will be over, but the war will go on," he adds.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/

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