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Syria tightens security ahead of presidential vote

  • FILE - This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, "For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar." The one at left reads, "There's a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014."(AP Photo, File)

    FILE - This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, "For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar." The one at left reads, "There's a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014."(AP Photo, File)

  • FILE - In this May 12, 2014 file photo, a vehicle drives past campaign posters of the June 3 presidential election in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. The Arabic on the poster, right, reads, "Damascus spreads flowers for the loyal Bashar." The banner, left, reads, "Together with Bashar Assad." (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - In this May 12, 2014 file photo, a vehicle drives past campaign posters of the June 3 presidential election in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. The Arabic on the poster, right, reads, "Damascus spreads flowers for the loyal Bashar." The banner, left, reads, "Together with Bashar Assad." (AP Photo, File)

  • FILE - In this May 24, 2014 file photo, people walk by a campaign poster of the presidential elections for the incumbent President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - In this May 24, 2014 file photo, people walk by a campaign poster of the presidential elections for the incumbent President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. (AP Photo, File)

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

  • FILE - This Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Iran. The 48-year-old Assad has led Syria since 2000, taking over as president after the death of his father, Hafez, who ruled the country for some 30 years. Syrians are voting Tuesday in their country’s first multicandidate presidential election. Previous votes were referendums in which Bashar Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, were the only names on the ballot and Syrians voted yes or no. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Assad will secure a third seven-year term. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

    FILE - This Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Iran. The 48-year-old Assad has led Syria since 2000, taking over as president after the death of his father, Hafez, who ruled the country for some 30 years. Syrians are voting Tuesday in their country’s first multicandidate presidential election. Previous votes were referendums in which Bashar Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, were the only names on the ballot and Syrians voted yes or no. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Assad will secure a third seven-year term. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

  • In this photo taken Thursday, May 22, 2014 file photo, Syrian presidential candidate Hassan al-Nouri, a 54-year-old former lawmaker who was educated in the United States, speaks to The Associated Press during an interview in Damascus, Syria. Syrians are voting Tuesday in their country’s first multicandidate presidential election. Previous votes were referendums in which Bashar Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, were the only names on the ballot and Syrians voted yes or no. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Assad will secure a third seven-year term. (AP Photo, File)

    In this photo taken Thursday, May 22, 2014 file photo, Syrian presidential candidate Hassan al-Nouri, a 54-year-old former lawmaker who was educated in the United States, speaks to The Associated Press during an interview in Damascus, Syria. Syrians are voting Tuesday in their country’s first multicandidate presidential election. Previous votes were referendums in which Bashar Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, were the only names on the ballot and Syrians voted yes or no. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Assad will secure a third seven-year term. (AP Photo, File)

  • In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, third left, speaks during his meeting with secular and religious dignitaries from Damascus suburbs, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, May 31, 2014. Syrian rebels blew up a tunnel packed with explosives in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday, killing at least 20 pro-government fighters, activists and rebels said. (AP Photo/SANA)

    In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, third left, speaks during his meeting with secular and religious dignitaries from Damascus suburbs, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, May 31, 2014. Syrian rebels blew up a tunnel packed with explosives in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday, killing at least 20 pro-government fighters, activists and rebels said. (AP Photo/SANA)

  • FILE - This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, "For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar." The one at left reads, "There's a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014."(AP Photo, File)

    FILE - This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, "For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar." The one at left reads, "There's a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014."(AP Photo, File)

  • FILE - This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, "For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar." The one at left reads, "There's a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014."(AP Photo, File)
  • FILE - In this May 12, 2014 file photo, a vehicle drives past campaign posters of the June 3 presidential election in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. The Arabic on the poster, right, reads, "Damascus spreads flowers for the loyal Bashar." The banner, left, reads, "Together with Bashar Assad." (AP Photo, File)
  • FILE - In this May 24, 2014 file photo, people walk by a campaign poster of the presidential elections for the incumbent President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. (AP Photo, File)
  • FILE - In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)
  • FILE - In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)
  • FILE - This Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Iran. The 48-year-old Assad has led Syria since 2000, taking over as president after the death of his father, Hafez, who ruled the country for some 30 years. Syrians are voting Tuesday in their country’s first multicandidate presidential election. Previous votes were referendums in which Bashar Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, were the only names on the ballot and Syrians voted yes or no. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Assad will secure a third seven-year term. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
  • In this photo taken Thursday, May 22, 2014 file photo, Syrian presidential candidate Hassan al-Nouri, a 54-year-old former lawmaker who was educated in the United States, speaks to The Associated Press during an interview in Damascus, Syria. Syrians are voting Tuesday in their country’s first multicandidate presidential election. Previous votes were referendums in which Bashar Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, were the only names on the ballot and Syrians voted yes or no. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Assad will secure a third seven-year term. (AP Photo, File)
  • In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, third left, speaks during his meeting with secular and religious dignitaries from Damascus suburbs, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, May 31, 2014. Syrian rebels blew up a tunnel packed with explosives in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday, killing at least 20 pro-government fighters, activists and rebels said. (AP Photo/SANA)
  • FILE - This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, "For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar." The one at left reads, "There's a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014."(AP Photo, File)

With security heightened in Damascus and thousands fearing rebel attacks in other cities, Syria holds an election today in the middle of its bloody civil war – a vote that President Bashar Assad is expected to win easily and that critics have denounced as a sham.

Assad’s re-election to another seven-year term would show the tenacity of a ruler who had only a tenuous grip on power just more than a year ago. In the past 12 months, his troops have clawed back to regain lost ground and significantly strengthen his position, giving him little reason to seek a political compromise in a conflict that has killed more than 160,000 people.

Still, the Syrian government has gone to great lengths to present the vote as a way to resolve the crisis and move forward. For the first time in more than 50 years, more than one candidate will be on the ballot. Assad faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both of whom were little-known in Syria before declaring their candidacy in April.

The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have dismissed the vote as a farce, questioning the credibility of an election taking place during a raging civil war. Much of northern and eastern Syria is in rebel hands, and polling will only be done in government-controlled areas.

Ahmad al-Jarba, the leader of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, described the vote as “theater written with the blood of Syrians.” He urged his countrymen to stay home, alleging that Assad was planning to bomb and shell voting centers in order to blame the opposition.

Campaigning officially ended yesterday, and workers across central Damascus took down banners, posters and pictures of the candidates. Blue and yellow tents were set up to shade the crowds expected at polling stations from the sun.

Hajjar and al-Nouri gave several interviews and turned up at election events during the race, but Assad has not made any public appearances in recent weeks. Still, the president remained a ubiquitous presence.

Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi urged Syrians to cast their ballots for a president “who would lead the next stage, achieve security and stability in the country, and bolster unity and national principle for the Syrian people and step up the achievement of national reconciliation.”

He said the election was a “historic day” for Syria and that a large turnout will “prove to the entire world that the Syrian people have decided and are determined to make the electoral process a success.”

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