Polls have opened in Syria’s presidential election, with the incumbent Bashar al-Assad widely expected to win.
Voting is only taking place in government-controlled territories, meaning those displaced by fighting or living in rebel-held areas, will not be able to take part.
The opposition has dismissed the vote as a “farce” that will prolong the country’s three-year war. The vote excludes regime opponents from running.
Tuesday’s controversial vote is Syria’s first election in nearly 50 years, with Assad and his father Hafez renewing their mandates in successive referendums.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Lebanon’s Al Masnaa border crossing on Tuesday, said: “The displaced Syrians who are in Lebanon, if they go in today [to Syria] they will risk losing their status as refugees in Lebanon.
“The opposition says this is a farce, they don’t recognise these elections. They say there is no way it could be legitimate while civil war is raging in the country, while it’s being organised by the same president they want to overthrow.
“If you talk to regular Syrians, many of them have come to the conclusion, whether they support Assad or oppose him, he has prevailed in the last three years, and know he is going to win the seven-year term which is going to further complicate the process to form a new transitional government away from the current regime.”
Assad faces two virtually unknown competitors – Maher al-Hajjad and Hassan al-Nuri.
Nuri, who studied in the US and speaks English, told AFP news agency he expected to come second after Assad.
Both he and Hajjar have only lightly criticised Assad’s rule, for fear of being linked to an opposition that has been branded “terrorist” by the regime. The two men are, instead, focusing on corruption and economic policy.
The vote takes place as the war continues, with the air force bombarding rebel areas in Aleppo and fierce fighting in Hama, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa.
More than 15 million Syrians will be able to cast their vote in 11,000 ballot boxes distributed in more than 9,000 offices, which will be open from 7am to 7pm local time.
“They [Syrians] feel things are being complicated, but they are adamant they have to deal with this reality,” Al Jazeera’s Roula Amin said.
“That is why these people crossing into Syria vote feel they arre doing it only to manage their daily lives, meaning they don’t want to lose their chance to go back to Syria, or maybe lose their passport, or having their family pay a price if they don’t vote.”
Observers from countries allied to the regime – North Korea, Iran and Russia – are supervising the vote, while a security plan has reportedly been put in place in Syrian cities to prevent possible attacks against voters and polling stations.
Syria’s divided rebels, like their Western and Arab backers, are powerless as Assad prepares to renew his grip on power, after a string of advances on the ground, mainly in Homs and near the Lebanese border.
Opposition activists have branded the vote a “blood election”, while the country reels from a war that has killed more than 162,000 people.
For some time, rumours have swirled that polling stations in Damascus would be targeted by rebels positioned in the nearby countryside.
The Assad regime pulled off a coup last week when thousands of expatriates and refugees living abroad turned out for an early vote in the embassies of their host countries.
More than 95 percent of those registered cast their ballots, the state news agency SANA said.
However, Syrians who entered countries illegally were not allowed to take part and only 200,000 of about three million refugees were on electoral lists abroad.
The Assads have ruled Syria with for more than 40 years.
All dissent has been crushed throughout that time, with Assad’s father Hafez crushing a Muslim Brotherhood-led rebellion in Hama in the 1980s, and tens of thousands of people still languishing in jails.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies