Today is Day 1,168 of the Syria conflict, and the polling stations in Lebanon and Jordan are open.
By polling stations mostly we mean embassies. The Syrian presidential election is next week, June 3, but voting for the displaced begins early. Only those who were nice enough to fill out the appropriate paperwork while fleeing chlorine gas, torture, and bullets (i.e. registered refugees) are eligible to vote in this election, which, as the BBC succinctly puts it, "has been branded a farce by the West." President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win. Two other candidates are competing, which is unusual, but they're so insignificant and unknown that most of the news writeups don't even bother to name them. (Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, since you asked. Go read Time's short piece on them, and when you're finished, you will know more about them than most Syrians did before they announced their candidacies.) Those not meeting stringent residency requirements could not run, excluding bigger opposition names.
The turnout, however, is so far spectacular, particularly in Lebanon. Here are a few more photos of the throngs at the Syrian embassy above Beirut:
Thousands of Syrain nationals living in Lebanon arrive outside the Syrian Embassy in Yarze.
Lebanese army soldiers arrest an alleged riot instigator as Syrian expatriates arrive at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze.
How many people is that? Unclear. The UN puts Syria's total refugee count at 2.8 million, while the BBC says "half of the one million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon are believed to be of voting age." Not all of those eligible are likely voting, but certainly a lot seem to be. The BBC's Jim Muir speculates that "supporters of President Assad's government will be keen to demonstrate their loyalty," while "others ... may feel the government is going to survive, and fear they will not be able to return home if they do not vote." To those voting in Lebanon is added those voting in Jordan, which hosts 600,000 registered Syrian refugees and probably 1.3 million in total.
That said, a small group of protesters has gathered outside the embassy in Amman. Wire photos show them waving the flag of the Syrian opposition and, among some of the women, wearing a longer version of it as a neck scarf.
Two other items of news today:
1. Obama announced expanded miltary assistance for the Syrian opposition at his West Point address today, part of a broader shift in US foreign policy. It's been rumored for a while that the president was leaning in this direction.
2. Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad posted to his Facebook page a letter from Virginia state Sen. Richard Black praising Assad's "extaordinary gallantry in the war against terrorists." It's now been confirmed by The Washington Post that the letter was, indeed, from Sen. Black. In a phone call with the Post, Black outlined his case for Assad, which appears to be:
(a) that he's not al-Qaeda,
(b) that he hasn't attacked Israel, and
(c) that he has "protected the 15 percent Christian minority in Syria."
He also told the Post that "Whatever a person's view is of President Assad, he certainly has never exhibited the savagery of these jihadist groups fighting against him."
It is notoriously hard to collect accurate data on atrocities in Syria. That's why the UN stopped updating its death toll in January.
The jihadist groups fighting against Assad (as opposed to the more moderate opposition groups) are known for beheadings, dismemberment of the dead (including sticking them on crosses for display), torture, mass executions, and more. On the other hand, Assad's forces are also known for torture, as well as gassing entire neighborhoods, attacking hospitals, and shooting doctors. The Syrian uprising began when residents of one town learned over a dozen schoolboys, who had been arrested for anti-regime graffiti, were being tortured in prison.
The conflict continues.