It has been a decade since the Arab Uprising swept across the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region. There are mixed reactions to this as many are either mourning the past or hailing the present. However, for a common Syrian, the past decade represents a story of sorrow and alienation as they are dragged into a new vortex of violence every day. Today around 88% of the Syrians are living below the poverty line[i] and around 2.8 million children are out of education[ii]. A UK-based monitoring agency, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has calculated that in past one decade, 3,87,453 people have lost their lives including 1,16,119 civilians.[iii]
More than 6 million Syrians are internally displaced and according to a recent report released by the UN Refugee Agency, 6.5 million Syrians are scattered across 126 countries as refugees or immigrants.[iv] Many peace processes of the last decade have failed to achieve any desirable solution. The UNSC Resolution 2254 (2015) was the first guiding text for a permanent ceasefire but violence continued. The Vienna Peace Process launched jointly by Russia, Turkey, the US and Saudi Arabia in November 2015[v] suffered similar fate. Eight rounds of Geneva Talks between 2012 and 2018 and ten rounds of the Astana process in the last three years led nowhere. Amid these peace efforts, conflict, and fragmented Syrian political landscape, President Assad decided to hold presidential elections, which Iran and Russia supported as a “constitutional” move and US, EU members and others called “ a farce and a shame”.
Assad Wins Fourth Consecutive Presidential Election
Before the launch of the election campaign, a national signature drive was initiated by Assad-loyalists to collect 2.5 million signatures in favour of Assad. The new constitution of 2012, approved on February 26, 2012 by a referendum had introduced a pluralist political system unlike in the past when only members of the Baath party were allowed to contest elections. The present election was held according to the 2012 constitution. In 2012, the system of electing President through referendum was also replaced by the multi-party electoral system.[vi] After the announcement of the election date (26 May 2021), 51 candidates including 7 women filed their nominations but the Supreme Constitutional Court of the country ratified only three names: Assad, Mahmoud Merhi and Abdullah Salloum. Mahmoud Merhi is a political activist credited with founding the Arab Body of Human Rights and Syrians for Democracy. He is also a member of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union and has represented opposition groups in several UN-led dialogues. Abdullah Salloum was one-time close ally of President Assad and former Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs. [vii]
President Assad’s central slogan in this election was “Hope through Work”. Other banners reading “We chose Bashar Assad and We Chose the Future” were also seen in the capital city of Damascus during the heydays of his campaign.[viii] Interestingly, campaigns by Assad’s opponents were almost invisible. As expected, Assad achieved a landslide victory with 95.2% votes and secured 13,540,860 votes of 14 million votes cast out of the total eligible voters (18,107,108) inside and outside the country.[ix] His two opponents Mahmoud Merhi and Abdullah Salloum received only 3.3% (470,276) and 1.5 % (273,986), respectively.[x] President Assad had chosen to cast his vote in the town of Douma near Damascus – a symbol of revolution since 2012. Douma was the town that the regime was able to retrieve from the control of the rebel forces only after Russian intervention in 2018. Assad outperformed his election victory margin of 2014 when he had achieved 88%,[xi] a comparatively poor margin victory since his father’s (Hafiz Assad) days who in the referendum of 1985 and 1999 had received 100% ‘yes’ votes.[xii] It was Assad’s fourth consecutive win since he succeeded his father in 2000. In his victory speech, President Assad said that message to the enemies was clear, and his national mission had been accomplished.[xiii] He accused the opposition of ‘treason’ and threatened them with persecution and hailed his loyalists as ‘patriots’. [xiv]
Assad’s Victory and Question of Legitimacy
Even before the election was held and the result announced, the opposition groups had denounced the election and called it a theatric farce. [xv] Many questioned the legitimacy of the election because it was in complete violation of UNSC resolution 2254 passed unanimously in late 2015, which called for a Syrian-led political process followed by the formation of a government of national unity after which a constitutional drafting committee was to be formed and finally elections, supervised by UN were to be held. Likewise, the Astana Process and Sochi Conference of January 2018 specified that any future election could be held only under a new constitution.[xvi] But the Assad regime refused to link the two. In fact, in December 2020 the then Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Al-Miqdad had snubbed the idea of linking the drafting of a new constitution with the elections.[xvii] Surprisingly, Russia, a close ally of Syria refused to make the holding of election conditional upon the conclusion of the constitutional process in September 2020[xviii]. Even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had remarked earlier in June 2018 that Syria should hold the election under the new constitution. Under the Sochi proposal, a Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in September 2019 and until the spring of 2021, only five rounds of meetings were held without agreeing on even a single clause or article.
The creation in 2014 of 2014 Supreme Judicial Election Commission by the government has also been seen as having facilitated Assad’s victory.
Under the constitution of 2012, it was mandatory for the candidates to have resided in Syria for ten years without any break at the time of filing the nomination.[xix] Due to this clause, many of the opposition figures who were lobbying against Assad outside Syria were deprived of their right to contest the election. Further, the ratification of minimum of 35 Assembly members was mandatory for each contestant, which was impossible to receive in the Assembly dominated by Assad-loyalists. Even among refugees spread across the region, only those were allowed to vote who had an official exit stamp on their passports.[xx]
Further, the elections could be held only in the government-controlled area and lakhs of voters could not reach the voting booths in northwestern Syria because they were stranded in the Turkish-controlled zone. Further, around 3 million inhabitants from four Kurdish-controlled provinces were not allowed to vote.[xxi] Despite many rounds of negotiations between Kurd leaders and the Government of Assad for Kurdish participation in the election, no consensus was reached because of the rejection of the Kurdish demands for autonomous administration of their region by the government.[xxii]
Present Elections and Realities on the ground
Over the years, Syria has witnessed some signs of political stability and security situation on the ground has been improving marginally. There are reports of return of refugees from neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Reconstruction work is in progress in some parts of the country. But the elections were held at a time when the national economy is in decline because of multiple European and US sanctions. In March 2021, the Syrian Pound (Lira) fell to its lowest in the recent past with 400 Lira becoming equal to US $ 1, while the exchange rate during the peak of the civil war was US $1 to 48 Syrian Lira .[xxiii] Today Syria is completely cut off from the outside world not only because of economic slowdown, but also due to rising cases of COVID-19. The political and economic crisis in Lebanon- Syria’s main link with the outside world- has also contributed to the deepening economic crisis in the country. Around 88% of Syrians have slipped below the poverty line and with high rates of poverty, ignorance and crime, the country has become a haven for miscreants and radical groups. The Syrian forces along with Russia, Iran and other allied forces are still fighting to dislodge the rebel forces from cities like Idlib and other small towns.
Northeastern parts of Syria are completely under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the region is being administered as an autonomous entity by the “Syrian Democratic Council”. On the other hand, the northwestern region of Idlib, Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Jarablus, which constitutes around 10% of Syrian territories, is under the control of rebel forces. Today only two-thirds of national territories are under the control of the government, where the government has succeeded in holding the election. Currently, it can be said that Syria is under the influence of Russia, Iran, Turkey and different Jihadist groups in political and strategic terms.[xxiv] For almost three years, in the name of fighting SDF, the Turkish armed forces are present in almost the whole of northern Syria.[xxv] Out of 270 districts in Syria, elections could be held only in 154 districts while people in 46 districts like Idlib, Hasaka, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo and Latakia boycotted the election and rest of the 70 districts went without polling because of their control by anti-government forces. Despite the sufferings of the common masses, unabated conflict and violence, internal and external displacement of millions, presence of rebel groups and regional proxies, President Assad seems to face no challenge to his authority and Syrians have lost the appetite for change.
Victory of President Assad and Global Response
The global response to Assad’s victory in Presidential election was as divided as the domestic response. The endorsement of the election in Syria and the victory of Assad by both Iran and Russia was a foregone conclusion because they have committed all their political, military, strategic and diplomatic strength to sustain Assad in power. Iran and Russia along with Belarus were the only countries that sent official delegations to monitor the election. The support of Russia to the Presidential election can also be gauged from the fact that the election date was announced after few days of a meeting between President Putin’s Special Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev and President Assad in Damascus in April 2021.[xxvi] Likewise, the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif on 12 May, 2021 a few days before the election, to Damascus was meant to ensure the continuation of President Assad in power.
The two outside supporters of the Assad’s Government (Iran and Russia) consider this election as a path towards political stability in Syria and as being in compliance with UNSC resolution 2254 while for the opponents, it was an eyewash in the absence of any change on the ground. The support of Russia and Iran to Assad also indicated to the opposition that Assad’s exit would no more be a part of any future negotiation. Assad’s continuation in power has been a source of strategic strength for Iran as his rule is a bridge between Iran and its close allies- Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas of Palestine, in the region. Apart from gaining dozens of military and economic contracts and concessions from the regime of Assad, the survival of Assad has become a bargaining chip for Iran against many of anti-Assad Governments in the region and the west. Israel tacitly supported the victory of Assad because it has the experience of more than two decades of dealing with him and any replacement for Assad would have been a source of anxiety.
On their part, the US and European Union denounced the election after the announcement of the results. The Biden administration said that it would not recognise the political process unless it was supervised by the UN and unless all Syrians participate in it.[xxvii] US, France, UK, Italy and Germany in a separate joint statement declared the election as a sham. Most European countries rejected the election on the ground that millions of refugees and internally displaced people were deprived of political participation due to adverse conditions.
The UN was equally critical of the political process and commented, “We do not accept the election and UN is not a party to the current election process conducted by the current regime”.[xxviii] It refused to consider the election as a step towards a political solution and remarked that it was against the spirit of the UNSC resolution 2254 which was the basis for the resolution of the Syrian crisis.
As far as Arab world is concerned, there were no critical or vivid reactions on the part of the Arab governments. The reasons for this indifference perhaps lie in the fast changing diplomatic and political postures among many of the Arab governments towards Assad’s Government. Even before this election, a wind of change had already started blowing among the Arab leaders towards Assad’s government. United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain had already opened their embassies in 2018. Egypt is also reported to have expressed interest in restoring its ties with Syria and Arab League, which expelled Syria in 2012, has said that Syria is welcome to join the League again. Saudi Arabia, too, can any time soon reopen its mission in Syria. Close to the election, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, travelled to Damascus on 3 May 2021 to meet his Syrian counterpart in the first known meeting of its kind in over a decade. The beginning of a relationship between Syria and Saudi Arabia can push other countries to normalise their relationship and that would re-legitimise Assad’s government.
Though President Assad has been elected for the fourth consecutive term, there is little hope of any significant change on the ground. It is the post-election phase that would be the real challenge for Assad. There are possibilities of fresh conflict, as a sizable part of territories are still beyond the control of Assad’s Government. President Assad would be confronting many challenges, including reclaiming of the territories from the control of rebel forces in northeast and northwest and southeast of Syria, which together represents one-third of the country. The restoration of peace and stability in the country apart from improving the economic situation would not be an easy task for Assad. One needs to see how he can keep the Syrian economy afloat even with Russian and Iranian support. The Assad Government will have to lay down a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate millions of its population who have been uprooted from their native places, as many have started returning from their places of refuge.
This victory for President Assad would be a strong message for the rebel and opposition forces that they have lost the race and opposition has no place in the future political evolution of Syria. All past peace efforts and series of multi-level negotiations would suffer a pushback and hopes for any close coordination between the opposition and the regime, witnessed during Astana and Sochi dialogues, would further diminish. The present election has helped Assad to circumvent the implementation of past UNSC resolutions or implement other resolutions passed at different regional or global forums.
The military and strategic presence of Iran and Russia in one form or other would continue in the future, with several regional implications, and Syria is likely to remain an arena for a shadow war between Israel and Iran and its proxies, with the possibility of further escalation in the tensions. Assad’s continuation in power is likely to further deepen the Syrian Government’s differences with the west, potentially driving Syria closer to Russia and Iran, with both countries determined to sustain Assad in power. Russia will undoubtedly enhance its efforts to seek regional and global credibility for Assad’s regime in the future.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[xix]Jana Abs, Assad Chooses his Opponents in Syrian Presidential Election, Al-Anab, An Arabic Daily, April 25, 2021, Accessed https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/476710 July 20, 2021 https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/476710