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As Polls Close, Many Syrians Fear The Days To Come


Syria's highly questionable, and carefully choreographed, election leaves many people concerned about how it may embolden President Bashar al-Assad. NPR's Alice Fordham has been talking with people inside Syria and in neighboring Beirut.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: At the end of the day, Assad will be able to show that there were many Syrians who vote for him because they want to or because he made them. It's a demonstration of power, either way.

CELINE ALMAHDAD: (Through translator) What's happening is that everyone is afraid. Everyone is going to vote, and they know who they'll be voting for, Dr. Bashar al-Assad.

FORDHAM: Celine Almahdad, a journalist and Damascus who uses a pen name because she's afraid of the regime. Over Skype, she describes visits from the security forces before the election, making sure everyone voted, including her. She thinks the vote is stage-managed, and she worries that Assad loyalists may crack down even harder on opposition after the poll.

ALMAHDAD: (Through translator) Tomorrow if - of course Bashar Assad will win. They'll take harsher control and come down harder with the security. And everyone is very afraid from this - not a little, a lot.

FORDHAM: I meet Mahar in a cafe in Beirut. He was an activist in Syria and asks we don't use his full name because he doesn't have permission from his new employer to talk politics. He, too, sees fresh violence in Syria's future, particularly in the largest city of Aleppo, which is still being fought over. And he makes the point that this vote entrenches the division of Syria between Assad's areas and opposition-held places where voting isn't happening.

MAHAR: So in a way, they are saying that we are now announcing this, and we're now in public, saying this out in public - that we don't care about the votes about those people. They are not our voters. They don't belong to this authority.

FORDHAM: He calls it a publicly clear breakup. Mahar also thinks that pro-Assad militias, now widespread in regime-held areas, will begin to assert themselves. He says they're chaotic, not linked to each other and not really controlled by the president. He already hears rumors of them extorting money.

MAHAR: State forces, they won't be able to control them because now they are playing bigger role than even the army and the legal, police or security branches.

FORDHAM: Some analysts also point to this kind of localization of the war in the wake of the election. Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle East studies at the London School of Economics. He says that Assad has worked with local militias and rebel groups to build truces, in part, in defiant response to Western calls for a diplomatic solution.

FAWAZ GERGES: What the Assad regime is trying to say - there is a local way out of the process. The only way, the most effective means to resolve the Syrian crisis is not through international diplomacy, but rather through internal assets.

FORDHAM: Gerges sees an intensification of these internal efforts, like truce building, in the coming months. But this relies on local leaders reaching compromises and so allows for an autonomy never before seen in Syria, which lessens Assad's reach, even in the areas his forces control.

GERGES: I think what we are seeing in Syria is the decentralization of power, the fragmentation of power.

FORDHAM: Gerges says this fragmentation could eventually result in a prolonged power struggle, even within Assad-controlled areas, which could last years. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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