Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian refugees near the border town of Kilis that their “victory is not far,” as the regime in Damascus geared for a parliamentary election described by the opposition as a cynical attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to hold on to power.
“You are getting stronger each passing day,” Erdogan told the hundreds of refugees who had fled a bloody crackdown on dissent in Syria.
“Your victory is not far,” added the prime minister who was visiting the Kilis refugee camp.
Turkey, once a strong ally of Syria, is home to some 23,000 refugees who fled the Damascus regime’s deadly crackdown on dissent. It is also playing host to a large Syrian opposition community including rebels defecting from the army.
“Bashar is losing blood each passing day,” said Erdogan, referring to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
“We are on the side of Syrian people but we are never on the side of the Bashar administration,” said Erdogan.
The Kilis refugee camp bordering Syria is one of the largest camps hosting some 9,600 refugees.
The camp was target of controversy when ricocheting bullets from crossfire between Syrian troops and rebel forces wounded four Syrians and two Turks in early April. Two of the wounded Syrians later died, witnesses had told AFP.
Erdogan’s statement came as President Assad’s regime prepared to hold a parliamentary election three months after the adoption of a new constitution that allows the formation of political parties to compete with the ruling Baath party.
Syrian opposition leaders said the regime has portrayed Monday’s vote as a sign of its willingness to carry out reforms, while at the same time denying that it faces a popular uprising.
In new violence, regime forces fired tank-mounted machine guns at two neighborhoods before dawn in the eastern town of Deir el-Zour, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. No casualties were immediately reported.
Assad’s opponents say reforms without their input are a farce and elections cannot be held under the threat of guns. A U.N.-brokered truce last month has failed to halt a brutal regime crackdown on the 14-month-old uprising against Assad despite the presence of foreign observers sent to monitor compliance.
“We think the elections have no credibility at all in the middle of a situation where the regime is killing the population,” said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. “It is an insult to the democratic process.”
Opposition leader Haytham Manna said, “We are against these elections because they don’t have any of the characteristics of free elections.” Manna heads the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, which represents activists in Syria and in exile. Manna spoke from Brussels and Kodmani from Paris.
In Syria, anti-regime activists also said they rejected the vote and had seen very little government preparation for elections in some opposition areas.
In the southern town of Dael, residents prevented anyone from putting up election posters and instead put up photos of the 20 people from the city who have been killed in the uprising.
“They are our candidates for parliament,” said Adel, a local activist, referring to the dead. He declined to give his full name for fear of retribution.
Another activist, Fares Mohammed in the town of Zabadani northwest of Damascus, said residents there would hold a general strike to protests the elections.
“Everyone here is refusing the elections,” he said by phone.
Underscoring the continued violence, U.N. observers visited Zabadani and Dael on Sunday, and regime forces fired randomly into Dael after they left, injuring three people, Adel said.
Since the outbreak of Syria’s popular revolt in March 2011, the regime has made a series of gestures to try to allay the crisis, but also kept up its attacks on centers of rebellion. The regime claims it is being targeted by a foreign-led conspiracy of criminals and terrorists.