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What Would be the Significance of a Syrian Election?

The Syrian government is reportedly set to hold a presidential election before July of this year. How will that reshape the conflict, and what message will it send to the opposition and the international community? Our experts weigh in.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

On Friday, the Syrian government announced residency rules for anyone running for presidential office, a move likely intended to stop exiled opposition officials from entering a race against incumbent president Bashar al-Assad.

Though Assad has not formally announced his candidacy, it is widely assumed that he will. Preparations are under way for the government to hold presidential elections before July of this year, defying the international community’s wish for a negotiated transitional government as discussed at the Geneva peace talks.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi cautioned last week that the opposition would likely not pursue further peace talks with the government should the elections go ahead.

We asked Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, Ayham Kamel, an Middle East director at the Eurasia Group, and Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Dubai-based think tank INEGMA, to weigh in on the consequences of a Syrian election.

Syria Deeply: What are the chances that an election takes place?

Rami Khouri: Given the way the Syrian regime has conducted business over the last four years, if they want to have an election, they’re going to have an election. There’s no doubt that it’ll go ahead. It’ll be like the referendum in the Crimean peninsula this week.

Riad Kahwaji: This is a regime that has a strong propaganda machine and can show pictures of people lining up to vote in areas under its control in Damascus, Latakia and Homs and claim that yes, there was an election and yes, Assad again got 99 percent of the vote.

Ayham Kamel: The chances are very high. I think we’re going to go ahead with elections, and they will be more transparent than previous rounds, but still not essentially free or democratic in any meaningful way. The election law and process will be different – I don’t want to imply that this is as much of an empty gesture as previous elections were – but compared to the events that occurred over the last three years, an election of this sort seems like an insufficient step to change how the country is run and managed.

SD: What would be the significance of an election? What would it mean for the conflict?

Khouri: I think if the government goes ahead with a unilateral election and it decides who can run and who can’t run, this would clearly be a signal that they’re not interested in pursuing a transitional process. Many people think that this is the case, but it’s up to the government to show whether it’s serious or not. But in going ahead with a unilateral election, basically the government is saying, “We set the rules, we decide who’s eligible and who’s not eligible, and we run the whole election process.”

If that were to happen, it would be a major signal to the opposition that the government really isn’t interested in the talking process [set forth by] Geneva I and II, and what happens after that, no one can predict. [And if the] Geneva-based process isn’t going to go ahead, it raises a big challenge to Assad’s supporters and opponents on what to do [next].

Kamel: For the conflict itself, it just reinforces the idea that the regime is here to stay. Assad’s military continues to have a strategic advantage, and its latest victory in Yabroud is a clear indication that the Assad regime is securing the area from Damascus to Homs in a much more coherent way.

An election positions the regime for additional gains. The message the election sends to all parties involved is that there is no one to negotiate with who has relevance on ground, that we can stage an election without participation from any other group. In areas controlled by the regime, you can actually have a political process, and in areas controlled by the opposition, there’s no authority who governs or controls anything.

This is the regime’s attempt to relegitimize itself, primarily based on the fundamental argument that an alternative to Assad has not emerged. Even the most critical members of the opposition recognize that Assad is still able to claim that he receives robust support from Syrians.

Kahwaji: It will simply prolong the conflict and dash any near-term hopes of a political resolution, because the whole concept of the Geneva talks was based on the idea of a transition of power. If you are going to have the incumbent president extend his term, then what is the point of having further negotiations? The opposition is demanding a transition, but now we have a government that’s refusing to go through with a transition but is extending and reasserting its power.

SD: What would be the international community’s reaction to an election?

Khouri: The Assad supporters would go along with it, saying it’s fine. The opponents would criticize it as a completely meaningless process and another attempt by a top-heavy autocratic regime to do what it wants and not listen to anybody else’s advice or rights. Then there’s some people in between who might say, “Look, we’re critical of some of the ways Assad behaves, but it’s better to have Assad than to have these Salafi extremists take over, and we have complete chaos in Syria and the country collapses into a bunch of warring factions.” So some people might reluctantly support Assad going ahead with the elections.

The international consensus says that [the new] political process in Syria should lead to a transitional governing authority of some sort. And the assumption there is that this cannot be done completely by the existing regime by itself, or by the opposition by itself. This needs to be a transitional process in which different actors agree on the steps they need to take towards a transitional governing authority. That authority is not defined, and whether it includes Assad and government officials or not needs to be negotiated.

Kahwaji: This is something that will most likely not be recognized by the majority of the international community, but you will have a de facto re-elected president who is supported by Russia and Iran. So you have a regime that is ultimately compelling the rest of the world to just deal with it, whether it will be recognized as legitimate or illegitimate, because it has managed to reassert itself again.

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