DAMASCUS - Polling stations opened on Wednesday across Syria in a presidential election that is set to usher Bashar al-Assad into a fourth term in office.
The government says the election shows Syria is functioning normally despite a decade-old war, but the opposition and Western nations view it as merely rubber-stamping Assad's grip on power. Assad is running against two obscure candidates.
In Damascus University's Faculty of Arts hundreds of students lined up to vote, with several buses parked outside.
"We came to elect president Bashar al-Assad...without him Syria would not be Syria," Amal, a nursing student, said.
"With our blood and soul we sacrifice our lives for you Bashar," other students chanted ahead of the opening of the polling station.
Assad first took power in 2000 on the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled for 30 years before that.
Assad's rule has been defined by a decade-long war that erupted after peaceful protests against his authoritarian rule in 2011. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes, about half the country's population.
The other two candidates in the election are former deputy cabinet minister Abdallah Saloum Abdallah, and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, head of a small, officially sanctioned opposition party.
The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States said in a statement on Tuesday, criticising leader Bashar al-Assad, that the elections would not be free or fair.
(Reporting By Kinda Makieh; Writing By Maha El Dahan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Michael Perry) ((Maha.Dahan@thomsonreuters.com; + 9712 4082101; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))