Many countries refuse to repatriate their citizens who came to join ISIL’s ‘caliphate’.
Bashar al-Assad has been re-elected for a fourth term as president of war-torn Syria with 95.1 percent of the votes cast in government-held areas, official results have shown, after a vote dismissed by the opposition and Western powers as a sham.
Wednesday’s controversial presidential vote was the second since the beginning of Syria’s uprising-turned-war a decade ago, a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced millions to leave the country and wrecked its infrastructure.
Head of parliament Hammouda Sabbagh announced the results at a news conference on Thursday, saying voter turnout was about 78 percent, with more than 14 million Syrians taking part.
Standing against al-Assad were two obscure candidates: former deputy cabinet minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmud Ahmad Marei, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, long dismissed by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of al-Assad’s government.
Marei got 3.3 percent of the vote, while Salloum received 1.5 percent, Sabbagh said.
On the eve of the election, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy said the poll was “neither free nor fair”, and Syria’s fragmented opposition has called it a “farce”.
But there were no doubts that al-Assad would be re-elected. In the previous polls in 2014, he had won nearly 89 percent of the vote.
Huge election posters glorifying al-Assad had mushroomed across the two-thirds of the country under his control in the lead-up to Wednesday’s poll.
Before the election results were announced, state media said tens of thousands of Syrians gathered on Thursday in various cities to celebrate after the election committee, quoted by local TV, said “the ballot counting process has been completed in the majority of Syrian provinces”.
Some danced and beat drums, while others waved Syrian flags and carried pictures of al-Assad, state media reported.
“Tens of thousands of people in Tartus province gathered at the city’s seafront to celebrate” al-Assad’s expected win, according to SANA.
Thousands of other Syrians rallied in the coastal city of Latakia and in Umayyad Square in the capital Damascus, which along with Tartus and Latakia are bastions of the government.
Celebrations were also under way in Aleppo and in Sweida, in Syria’s south, where a crowd gathered in front of the city hall, state media said.
Houwayda al-Nidal, a 52-year-old doctor, told AFP news agency that al-Assad’s victory “carries two messages”.
The first is that of a leader who has won the war and will lead the reconstruction, he said, and “the second is intended for foreigners to show who will lead the political talks after the end of the fighting on the ground.”
But Damascus-based student Layla* told Al Jazeera on voting day that many students were being forced to cast ballots. “Some universities will fail or even expel you if you don’t vote,” she said.
“But it doesn’t matter; we all know what the results will be because these elections are just a show,” she said, adding that none of the three candidates represented her.
The vote was boycotted by the Syrian Democratic Council, which administers an autonomous oil-rich region in the northeast, as well as in the northwestern region of Idlib, where people denounced the election in large protests on Wednesday.
The election was held Wednesday in government-held areas, and state media showed long queues forming outside polling stations, which remained open five hours past the planned closing time.
The vote took place amid the lowest levels of violence since the war erupted in 2011 – but with the economy in free fall.
More than 80 percent of the population live in poverty, and the Syrian pound has plunged in value against the US dollar, causing skyrocketing inflation.
Al-Assad’s campaign slogan, “Hope through work”, evoked the colossal reconstruction needed to rebuild the country, requiring billions of dollars in funding.
Danny Makki, Middle East Institute nonresident scholar, said the economic crisis had led to “peak discontent” even among the biggest supporters of al-Assad’s government.
“Although the elections have been celebratory, to say the least, [the] post-election [period] is where the true challenge awaits,” he told Al Jazeera. “Just how much can al-Assad keep the economy afloat and manage Syria’s problems, even with Russian and Iranian help, it’s a hard ask,” he added, referring to the president’s two major allies.
Al-Assad was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.
The UN’s Syria envoy, Geir Pedersen, noted the polls were not held under the political transition called for by Security Council Resolution 2254 which provides for free and fair elections.
“What is required is a Syrian-led and -owned political solution, facilitated by the United Nations and backed by constructive international diplomacy,” he said.