MASNAA, Lebanon: Syrian nationals lined up Tuesday to cross into Syria to vote, despite a Lebanese government threat to revoke the status of registered refugees if they return to their country.
“I'm going [to Syria] to check out the situation. If Ghouta is OK, I will stay,” said Fteim Talaa, 25, who came to Lebanon 20 days ago from the Ghouta in rural Damascus.
Talaa, whose husband has been missing for a year, said she would vote for Assad "so that Syria would go back to the way it was."
“We were living in security before the war and all the destruction came from the Free Syrian Army," she said.
The Masnaa border crossing appeared to run smoothly as members of Lebanon’s Security General checked passports and organized entry and return, issuing special 48-hour transit permits. By early afternoon, General Security sources estimated that 6,600 Syrian voters had crossed into Syria.
Bashar Assad is running for his third term as president of Syria, amid a civil war that is now in its four year and estimated to have killed 200,000 people and displaced millions. The vote has been widely disparaged as a farce by opposition figures and Western officials.
The scene stood in stark contrast to the chaos that reigned at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze last week, when tens of thousands showed up to vote, blocking the street for hours. The voting at the Syrian Embassy was widely criticized in Lebanon, with several figures saying the scene was more of a demonstration in support of the Assad regime than an exercise in democracy.
Shortly after the first round of voting, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said security concerns prompted the Lebanese government to amend its policy for Syrians. He denied it was any sort of political retaliation for the largely pro-Assad demonstrations that took place at the embassy.
The turnout at the border Tuesday could have been affected by the change in Lebanon's refugee policy, which took effect Sunday. It is unclear what effect Lebanon revoking refugee status would have, since Lebanon is not a signatory to the international refugee convention and does not actually recognize refugee status. Almost none of the Syrian nationals who spoke to The Daily Star were registered refugees.
Ibrahim Ramadan, a 51-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, said he had been in Lebanon for one month looking for work.
“I’m voting for the doctor [President Bashar Assad] because he’s the appropriate choice,” Ramadan told The Daily Star. “He has worked a lot for the country and had created job opportunities [before the war]."
A young Syrian man who wished to remain anonymous said he was voting for Hassan al-Nouri, one of two candidates running against Assad.
“Maybe someone new would be good for the country,” said the young man, who lives in the Damascus neighborhood of Al-Midan and travels often between Lebanon and Syria.
Another man, from Qunaitra, said he would vote for anyone but Assad, despite knowing almost nothing of the two candidates running against him whose campaigns he described as "not serious."
"I'm voting for freedom," he said. "It's worth a try, but it would be better if there were international bodies [monitoring the election]."
He admitted many people were voting out of fear of the regime, but still intended to vote for one of Assad's approved opponents.
Several women who had been turned away for a lack of documents and who also declined to give their names said a Syrian regime supporter had "gathered and brought" them to the border to vote.
They insisted, however, that they would vote for Assad freely, because they wished him to restore the country so they could return.
"I'm registered [for aid] but I'm not benefitting," one woman said. "There is work but not like it was in our country. Rent is high, everything is expensive and the Lebanese don't treat us well."
Another woman waiting for relatives to enter from Syria said she would not be voting.
"Look what happened to me, to us," she said with a sad smile. "Half my brothers and sisters are gone, either dead or in jail."
She declined to give her name.