MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Syria held an election last week and rendered the expected result, claiming President Bashar al-Assad had won another seven-year term with 95% of the vote - 95%. Well, this was dismissed as a sham by other countries but used by Syria to project control after years of civil war. NPR's Ruth Sherlock contacted Syrians to hear their views, including some they can barely say out loud.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: When we call Mamoom Shalle, the imam of a mosque in a Damascus suburb, he's keen to tell us how Syrians in regime-held parts of the country have moved on from the civil war.
MAMOOM SHALLE: (Through interpreter) The elections which happened - I can tell you that the people's participation was genuine, and this is proof that the president - that the situation is better now in terms of security and stability.
SHERLOCK: Shalle's views echo those of the Syrian government. They may well be genuine. The government does have loyal supporters, but there's also a very different story.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: We reached this student in the southern city of Daraa, where she tells us many still have a strong hatred for the government. She asks that we don't use her name because she fears arrest for speaking with Western media. She says on Election Day, where she lives, people closed their shops and businesses in protest. She's enraged by Syrians who did vote for the same president that so many have died trying to remove.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Through interpreter) Are they really holding on to the regime's lies that much? At least be sad over your dead sons. There isn't enough disgust.
SHERLOCK: In 2011, the regime responded brutally to anti-government demonstrations. The crisis escalated from there into a war that has seen an estimated half a million people killed and has fractured the country. The government has retaken most of Syria, all but about a third. But even in these areas, there is economic ruin. People wait for hours in bread lines, one of the only staples they can afford. The government is so financially hard hit that it can reportedly barely even provide meals for its soldiers. Dareen Khalifa, a researcher on Syria at the International Crisis Group, says in all this desperation, there are signs of anti-government dissent, even among loyalists.
DAREEN KHALIFA: And the problems with the support base has become increasingly evident. And I think it is, like, a transition of some sort in which people are increasingly expressing frustration.
SHERLOCK: This frustration is even evident among the members of the minority Alawite sect, a core of Assad's support base. This does not mean a second uprising or any significant challenge to the government is imminent.
KHALIFA: The population is exhausted and terrified. You know, they've seen what happens to voices of dissent. They've seen the power imbalance favoring the regime.
SHERLOCK: This fear of detention is evident when we speak by phone with a woman north of Homs in regime-held Syria. She asks that we don't use her name and that we distort her voice.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVIST: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: In this war, she's seen many of her friends killed or detained. Most of her relatives have fled. A pro-opposition activist in the war, she now feels people in Syria have no alternative but to endure the regime.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
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