YARZE, Lebanon (AP) — Tens of thousands of supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad voted Wednesday at embassies abroad, clogging entrances to the Lebanese capital for hours and clashing with soldiers overwhelmed by their sheer numbers a week before national elections widely expected to give him a third seven-year term.
But reflecting the schism within Syrian society, many of the estimated 2.5 million refugees scattered across neighboring countries were either excluded or abstained from the balloting, which they deem a mockery because it is being held in the middle of a civil war.
The June 3 election is all but guaranteed to give the 49-year-old Syrian leader, whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades, a new mandate to continue with his crushing of the armed rebellion.
Backed by his Iranian allies and the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, Assad has in recent months gained the upper hand in the fighting, seizing key territory near the capital Damascus and the country's center. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. will increase assistance to the Syrian opposition, opening the way for the likely training and possibly equipping of moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad.
Nevertheless, Assad has insisted on holding elections amid the carnage, running against two little-known candidates seen as symbolic contenders. He has maintained significant support among large sections of the population, particularly among Christians, Alawites and other religious minorities. That support has been reinforced as Islamic militants gained more strength among the rebels fighting to topple him. Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the overwhelming majority of rebels are Sunni Muslims.
Bassem Zammam, a 45-year-old Syrian sculptor who arrived in Sweden as a refugee 45 days ago, said he voted for Assad "not because I like Assad, but because I like Syria."
"I like stability, I like (the safety) that we missed because of those savages," Zammam said, adding that he initially supported the rebels but changed his view because he felt they weren't really seeking freedom. He said rebel mortar fire had wounded his children and destroyed his house.
In Sweden, which has received some 30,000 Syrian asylum seekers since 2011, Syrians from opposing sides of the conflict gathered outside the embassy in Stockholm to express their views and cast their ballots.
Police stood between the two groups as emotions ran high, with pro-Assad Syrians outnumbering those opposing him.
Wednesday's expat voting in countries as far as Brazil turned into a show of support for Assad, particularly in Lebanon, long dominated by its bigger and far more powerful neighbor.
Tens of thousands of Assad supporters flocked to cast ballots at the hilltop embassy in Yarze, a town southeast of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. The ensuing chaos snarled traffic, trapping schoolchildren in buses for hours and forcing some schools to cancel scheduled exams.
Syrian authorities have said that only those who entered Lebanon legally could vote, effectively ruling out tens of thousands of refugees — mostly opponents of Assad — who crossed through unofficial border posts for fear of authorities.
About 1.1 million Syrians live in Lebanon as refugees. Even before the Syrian war, Lebanon had close to a million Syrian workers.
Clashes outside the embassy compound in Yarze broke out when Syrian voters started pushing against the Lebanese soldiers in their desperation to get into the building. Soldiers beat the voters back with batons and sticks. Overwhelmed by the crowds and the heat, several people fainted. Red Cross volunteers ferried at least 20 people away, giving them water and oxygen masks.
There was pandemonium inside the embassy as well. Voters pushed inside a small room with four ballot boxes and voted publicly. At times, election workers were seen grabbing the ballots and stuffing them inside the boxes themselves. No one appeared to be checking who was voting or how many times.
People began arriving at dawn, some on the back of pickup trucks, others in cars and buses plastered with the Syrian white-red-and-black flag, the yellow Hezbollah flag and pictures of Assad and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Many abandoned their cars to walk the last few kilometers (miles) to the embassy because traffic was at a standstill.
Hanging out of a car with a Syrian flag in hand, Ibrahim Hadid said he was voting for Assad. "What, you expect us to vote for the traitor Jarba?" he said, referring to the head of the main Western-backed opposition group, which is boycotting the vote. Jarba is not running in the election.
In Amman, Jordan, where the government supports the rebels, Syrians lined up outside their embassy to vote. But dozens gathered outside to protest, some carrying placards that read: "Anyone who votes has no morals."
"My son was one of the people who started the protests against the regime. He was unarmed but they killed him," said a Syrian woman from Damascus who identified herself as Um Mutazz al-Shaar.
At Jordan's sprawling Zaatari camp, refugees bitterly scoffed at the election.
"We will never accept such elections, because they are fake elections, and we call upon all the Arab countries to expel Syrian ambassadors," said Ali al-Faouri, who fled the southern Syrian city of Daraa.
Long lines formed at embassies in Iraq and Iran and in some European capitals. But a few countries including France and Germany barred voting, citing an international convention that gives the host government the authority to decide whether to allow an embassy to conduct elections.
Inside Syria, activists said military helicopters dropped several so-called barrel bombs on Aleppo's rebel-held district of Maghayir on Wednesday, killing at least 21 people, including three children and two women. In Damascus, rebels lobbed mortar shells that killed four people and wounded more than 32, state media reported.
Lebanese security officials said Wednesday that Fawzi Ayoub, a Hezbollah military commander, was killed in Syria while fighting alongside Assad's forces. Ayoub, also known as Abu Abbas, was wanted by the FBI on charges of attempting to use a forged U.S. passport to enter Israel.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Bassam Hatoum and Hussein Malla in Marj, Lebanon, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Malin Rising in Stockholm, Sweden contributed to this report.