BEIRUT: Syria’s exiled opposition slammed President Bashar Assad’s election to a new seven-year term as “illegitimate” Thursday, vowing to push on in its uprising.
Assad, who won nearly 90 percent of the vote, said: “the high turnout was a strong message to the West and the countries implicated in the war on Syria.” The turnout among eligible voters stood at 73 percent.
“The Syrian people ... are determined to choose their fate on their own and look to the future,” he added, speaking Thursday during a meeting with an Iranian parliamentary delegation.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in government-held areas even before the results were announced Wednesday evening, waving portraits of Assad and the official Syrian flag.
As celebratory gunfire erupted in the capital and loyalist areas across Syria, at least 10 people were killed when the bullets fell back to earth, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, updating an earlier toll of three.
Tuesday’s election was held only in government-controlled areas.
In the roughly 60 percent of the country controlled by rebels, activists reacted with the Arab Spring slogan that has been the rallying cry of their uprising – “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Pro-government newspapers all carried front-page photographs of the re-elected president. Images of Assad in suit and tie, or military uniform, filled the programming of state television.
A source close to the regime told AFP that Assad would be sworn in for a third term on July 17, when he will address parliament and lay out his new policies.
The main opposition National Coalition called the vote illegitimate and pledged that “the people are
continuing in their revolution until its goals of freedom, justice and democracy are reached.”
The exiled coalition also asked for “more aid for the opposition, in order to redress the imbalance of forces on the ground.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the election as an insult.
“Assad lacked legitimacy before this election, and he lacks it afterward,” he said. “This election bore no relation to genuine democracy.”
Speaking in Lebanon Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the poll a “great big zero.”
But Russia insisted Syrians had chosen their country’s future by voting in “legitimate” polls.
“It’s unacceptable to ignore the opinion of millions of Syrians who ... came to polling stations and made a choice in the interests of the future of the country,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Weary opposition activists said the election was likely to prolong the conflict, which has also sparked an exodus abroad of nearly 3 million refugees.
Speaking to AFP from Turkey, one of them who spent nearly two years trapped by the army siege of the third city, Homs, said he believed in a peaceful solution, but that Assad’s win made the prospects more remote than ever.
“Sadly the election means that the fighting and bloodshed will also continue, and no one knows for how long, while the refugees will stay in the camps,” he said, identifying himself only as Thaer.
Leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations slammed the election, saying Assad had no future in Syria.
In a separate development, the G-7 decided Thursday to tighten defenses against the risk of terror attacks by European jihadists returning from Syria.
“We have agreed to intensify efforts to address the issue of foreign fighters traveling to and from Syria,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said at the close of a G-7 summit.
He said talks were taking place with Syria’s neighbors to strengthen their borders in the wake of an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels late last month that is believed to be the work of a young French jihadist fighter recently returned from Syria.
French President Francois Hollande said more than 30 French fighters had already died on the Syrian battlefront. Almost 800 French citizens are believed to have signed up to fight Assad’s regime.
Hollande too said it was essential “to cooperate to prevent, dissuade and punish” foreign fighters “who can undermine our security.”
“We have unfortunately just had proof of that,” Hollande said in reference to the Brussels attack, the city’s first such incident in 30 years.