The huge turnout of Syrian citizens in Lebanon, particularly supporters of President Bashar Assad, for the recent presidential election was an unwelcome surprise for March 14, which has struggled to formulate a response as March 8 crows victory. Over 100,000 Syrians turned out to vote last Wednesday, blocking the entire street leading to the embassy and prompting the Syrian government to organize another round of voting the next day, and to promise to set up polls on the border on June 3.
Even the embassy had not expected such a flood of voters, a source there said, adding that officials had estimated the turnout would not surpass 70,000 people.
A high-ranking Syrian diplomat challenged the characterization of all Syrians in Lebanon as refugees.
“We are a democratic country and we practice our right to choose a president from among three competing candidates,” the diplomat said. “We are keen to carry out this election with the utmost transparency and efficiency.”
March 14, which has held up the refugees as victims of Assad’s oppression, was caught off guard by the high turnout and lashed out, sparking a heated internal debate over the appropriate response.
In the hours after the vote, the alliance’s General Secretariat issued a statement calling the “provocations and performances of Syrians in support of the regime under the pretext of participating in the election ... clear evidence that their security is not threatened, therefore, they are not refugees.”
“We ask the government to work to immediately expel them [back] to their country,” it added.
A high ranking official in the secretariat complained that the turnout was not representative because Hezbollah and Amal are free to organize buses and rallies in favor of Assad while the opposition lives in fear and operates in secret.
“The statement ... only sowed confusion when it should have explained that what happened in front of the embassy was nothing more than a show organized by Hezbollah,” the official said. “Instead, we portrayed Syrians in Lebanon as brainwashed, and this is not true at all.”
“Our position will not change,” he said. “Assad will become a fait accompli president. This is what Hezbollah is trying to accomplish by using its organizational and security resources to get out the vote for Assad right under the noses of the Western embassies in order to make it appear that Assad’s regime has recovered its strength.”
The secretariat has since held a series of meetings to discuss the coalition’s position on the Syrian refugee crisis following the election. Some blamed the March 14 figures in government – particularly in the Interior Ministry – for allowing such a one-sided show of support for Assad. Others accused the most outspoken individuals of being prejudiced toward Syrians after making a show of welcoming them when they thought they were supporters of the opposition.
The official concluded by saying that Assad does not enjoy international legitimacy and will remain known as the president who presided over massacres and the failure of both Geneva conventions.
“ Lebanon is part of the international community, which will not lend legitimacy to a leader who murders his own people,” he said, adding that the Syrian president was now nearly as isolated as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
A Hezbollah official said the March 14 coalition must “respect the will of the Syrian people and stop their propaganda” suggesting that most Syrians are anti-Assad.
“They [March 14] claim to be entirely on the side of the Syrian people as long as they oppose Assad, but if they support the regime, stability and security and choose Assad of their own free will, they treat them with prejudice and fear,” the official said.
“The West and America do not hide their skepticism of the results of the Syrian election, that it is fixed in favor of Assad, and therefore we predicted that the U.S. would try and stir up as much trouble as possible in order to avoid admitting that the Syrian people’s democratic choice is Assad,” he said.
Hezbollah’s rank and file see the huge pro-Assad turnout as a means of restoring the Syrian regime and their own weight among their March 8 allies, some of whom have sought to establish their own connections with Damascus to give the impression they played a role in organizing the crowds in support of Assad.
In fact, according to a report prepared by the embassy and sent directly to Damascus, the faction that played the largest role in getting out the vote was the Syrian Workers’ Union, a labor organization founded by the Baath party in Lebanon in 1975.