Associated Press

YARZE, Lebanon: 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.