Syrians head to the polls today in a vote that's expected to keep President Bashar Assad in power.
"The election is widely condemned as a sham by Western governments but hailed by Syria's allies Russia and Iran," NPR's Deborah Amos tells our Newscast unit. She says only residents in areas controlled by the Assad regime are allowed to vote.
Unlike in previous elections where Assad ran unopposed, there are two other names listed on the ballots — but they're little-known figures and their candidacies viewed as mostly symbolic.
Voting began at 7 a.m. local time (midnight EDT), and Deborah says rebels "stepped up attacks on government polling places in Aleppo and that "the regime responded with airstrikes." The Associated Press reports that a mortar shell in a plaza in Damascus but there was no damage or loss of life.
Despite the violence in Aleppo, other regions of the country were more peaceful. According to the AP:
"In government strongholds of Damascus and Lattakia, the voting took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with voters singing and dancing, all the while declaring undying loyalty to Assad. In Homs, people stood in long lines waiting to vote.
"The government has presented the election as the solution to the conflict, but there is no indication it will halt the violence or mend a bitterly divided nation. The stage-managed balloting also will likely put to rest any illusions that the man who has led Syria since 2000 has any intention of relinquishing power or compromising to reach a political solution.
"Syrian TV said Assad cast his ballot in the morning hours at a school in the posh Damascus neighborhood of al-Malki where he resides. The TV showed him in a dark blue suit and tie, flanked by his wife, Asma, both smiling as they cast their vote."
NPR's Alice Fordham reports for Morning Edition on how Assad has managed to maintain control despite more than three years of fighting.
"Today," she says, "Assad is strong again. His forces have retaken key territory. Songs celebrating Assad ring around Damascus. To re-gain his position, analysts say the Assad regime used international backing, domestic crackdowns and of course military force."
The Wall Street Journal's Sam Dagher told Morning Edition that for Assad and his allies, the vote will be regarded as an affirmation of Assad's legitimacy:
"For the regime and its allies, namely Hezbollah and Iran and also Russia, this is a huge deal because first of all, it proves all the enemies — so-called enemies from the point of view of the regime, including the U.S. and the West — that they were absolutely wrong, that all their bets against him were absolutely wrong, and that his people love him and are going to go out and vote for him."
The polls are expected to close at 7 p.m. local (noon EDT), and it's not clear when official results will be announced.
Update at 11:37 a.m. EDT:
Reuters is reporting that voting has been extended by five hours, until midnight local time (5 p.m. EDT). The extra time was added "to allow more people to participate due to heavy turnout, state media said."