The regime’s sham elections last week aimed to humiliate Syrians opposed to its rule and convince the international community to forget about the war. How should Western countries react?
Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad secured a fourth term after winning 95.1 percent of the vote in last month’s presidential election. This was unsurprising. No serious observer expected a fraudulent election choreographed by Syria’s dictatorship to produce a much different outcome.
This election only took place in regime-controlled areas where many Syrians are loyal to Assad. In these parts of the country, those who aren’t Assad supporters typically keep quiet—and for good reason considering the regime has forcefully disappeared an estimated 100,000 Syrians since 2011. Given that the authorities obviously know how each voter votes, it is unclear how many Syrians felt safe voting for any candidate besides Assad.
None of the 4.3 million displaced Syrians trapped in Idlib had a vote. The same was true for Syrians living in the northeast that combined with Idlib constitutes one-third of Syrian territory. Also excluded from the election were the six million Syrian refugees who have fled abroad, essentially all of whom the regime considers “cowards, traitors or terrorists.”
The millions of Syrians who couldn’t participate will never see this election as having a shred of legitimacy. “Everyone knows that [the election was] illegal and forced by the regime [and] in the election centres there were elements of the Syrian intelligence [apparatus] who were forcing the people to vote for Bashar al Assad,” said one Syrian refugee from Daraa who currently lives in Istanbul and spoke to TRT World on the condition of anonymity.
“Everyone knows that Bashar will win the elections before the results are released because Iran, Russia, China and Hezbollah are his biggest supporters.”
Besides Assad, the candidates included Abdallah Saloum Abdallah, a former regime official, and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, a member of a tiny state-sanctioned opposition group. Syrian law restricted them to only ten days of campaigning, preventing most Syrians from even knowing about their candidacies until quite recently.
Meanwhile, across Syria there were many pro-Assad rallies organised by Syrian businessmen seeking to grow closer to the regime.
“This can only be described as a sham election,” according to Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies. “Looking at how the elections were actually done without international supervision, without monitoring, very much illustrates a picture of a pseudo-election that nobody who understands and actually values democracy takes seriously,” he said in an interview with TRT World.
The Election’s Purpose
Why bother with the process? A government as authoritarian as Syria’s wouldn’t need to even fake an election to maintain power. But Assad’s regime had its own reasons for holding this election because of both domestic and international considerations.
“The Syrian government gained a crucial opportunity to celebrate its victory over the opposition and reaffirm that this is the fourth successive government from the Syrian President,” Danny Makki, a Damascus-based Syrian-British analyst, told TRT World. “This wasn’t a tightly fought, closely called election. It was a parade for Assad, and that is what was intended, a show of strength.”
The regime wanted to humiliate Syrians opposed to Assad. It was unquestionably demoralising for the last standing elements of the Syrian opposition to see footage of Assad and his wife voting in Douma, an area that anti-regime forces previously controlled beginning in 2012.
This neighbourhood was the last suburb of Damascus which the Syrian military eventually retook and also the site of a chemical weapons attack in 2018, which provoked limited US, British, and French military intervention against the Assad regime.
Assad voting in Douma was a reminder not only to Syrians but also to fellow Arab governments of the fact that Damascus has taken control of most of the country. Feeling resilient, Assad’s regime now wants to convince the international community to let bygones be bygones and simply move past the decade-long civil war that took roughly 500,000 lives and displaced millions.
“The 2021 presidential election in Syria has been used as a marker by the Syrian government of its survival,” said Makki. “Reaching this stage in itself is a remarkable feat considering how close Damascus was to falling at several times over the years.”
Syria is currently focused on its possible readmission to the Arab League, which might occur soon. It is easy to understand why unelected governments in the Arab region, which have their own interests in normalising diplomatic relations with Assad, have no reason to criticise Syria’s last election.
“Those countries who are actually pushing and calling for Syria to return to the Arab League, these are all authoritarian countries who absolutely do not value and are not interested in democratic legitimacy,” said Krieg.
“Obviously, they don’t really care whether these elections take place and how they take place so [last month’s Syrian election] will not have any impact on how legitimate they consider the regime because they know that the legitimacy of the regime is not based on public accountability or public scrutiny in any way.”
Biden’s Foreign Policy in Syria
Syria’s last election won’t improve Assad’s image in the West, however. On May 26, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US issued a joint statement slamming the election as a farce. Western policymakers argue that Assad’s crimes have put him beyond the pale.
At this juncture it is simply too hard to imagine any US-Syria rapprochement with Assad in power. This question is not even up for a debate in Washington which will almost certainly continue imposing tough sanctions authorised by the Caesar Act.
Unless Washington lifts these sweeping sanctions, it will be difficult to imagine Syria attracting the foreign investment and outside help required for reconstruction and redevelopment. Most financial institutions and large companies believe that the Caesar Act makes Syria too risky to engage.
To be sure, Syria will be facing major problems in the months ahead even if the war has largely wound down. Hunger is mounting. With skyrocketing prices for basic goods, 60 percent of the country’s population is currently food insecure. As the UN warns, there are real risks of famine in Syria, where half a million children are chronically malnourished.
“After the election celebrations, people will still be struggling,” explained Makki. “All in all, Assad has a big fight on his hands to keep the economy under control, and that will be his biggest task.”
Washington should accept that its influence in Syria is strictly limited. Arguments made by Caesar Act advocates, who assume that such sanctions are likely to pressure Assad’s regime into changing its conduct, are naïve. The Syrian regime will likely remain in power and maintain its current conduct despite the US sanctions.
By now, it should be clear to all observers that the regime is willing to do virtually anything to maintain its grip on large parts of Syria.
“The Assad regime and its allies, they just want to continue to confirm that they will not budge an inch despite everything the country has been through in ten years,” the Atlantic Council’s Jomana Qaddour recently told CNN.
“Despite the fact that they’re struggling to keep the country alive economically, they are still adamant about not changing a single thing. From Bashar al Assad’s perspective, this is an existential crisis, he will fight to the death—he said this many years ago and his supporters said this.”
Powerful Ba’athist officials will not need to worry about going hungry. But the injured, elderly, poor, sick and displaced Syrians will. Innocent Syrians, who have nothing to do with the regime’s crimes, suffer most from these sanctions.
Therefore, even if Washington does not have the appetite to reconcile diplomatically with Assad’s government, the US should, at minimum, change the Caesar Act so at least other countries in the region can cooperate with Syria to help the impoverished and war-ravaged country rebuild and redevelop.
For the Syrians themselves, who have been through so much since 2011, this is only fair and just.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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