Today, for the first time in more than four decades, Syrians have the chance to vote for a president who isn’t an Assad. But the election is marred by controversy and protest: his opponents call the poll a farce held by a brutal dictator accused of war crimes. Votes are being cast only in regime-held areas, as broad swaths of the country remain disputed or in rebel hands. Assad is widely expected to declare victory [over Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri] and begin a new seven-year term.
The vote “reflects trends of the last year of the regime being more successful,” says Chris Phillips, lecturer at the University of London and former Syria editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “At the very beginning of this, Assad quite cleverly changed the rules of the game by making out that just surviving this war is winning it.”
We asked a round of top analysts to weigh in on the impact of today’s election. Phillips, along with Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of Syria Comment; Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut; and Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy give their views on Assad, his allies and the state of the Syrian opposition.
Syria Deeply: What purpose does this election serve?
Joshua Landis: The election fulfilled two functions. First is a constitutional function, because Syria’s constitution says that every seven years a president needs to be elected. So he needs to do this for constitutional reasons. Second, it is a demonstration of leadership. Part of being a leader is demonstrating power, and making people line up and elect you, whether out of fear or devotion, is an important process that demonstrates to his supporters that he is loved and feared. And it demonstrates to his opponents that he has this massive approval and that he can bring people out onto the streets. It’s meant to intimidate the opposition.
There was a lot of talk leading up to the Geneva II peace talks, with people saying that perhaps these elections could be used in some way to finesse Assad’s stepping aside. We realized this would not happen when the Geneva process failed, but this vote really punctuates the failure of Geneva. It makes it very clear that Assad has every determination to stick around. And in many ways, it underlines the fact that he has been winning in the last year, not by a lot, but by inches.
Rami Khouri: This election, like almost everything else that has happened in Syria in the last three years, basically reflects and reaffirms the status quo and will further deepen the polarization that defines that status quo. It means absolutely nothing for the balance of power, for Assad or the opposition. It’s a psychological exercise in self-affection: it’s the regime trying to show that it’s in control, that everything is normal and democratic. Assad’s supporters do feel that, but most of the rest of the world disagrees. This election does nothing to change this perception. It does show his determination to stay where he is and remain president and to keep doing what he’s been doing.
Syria Deeply: To what do you attribute voter turnout?
Landis: After three and a half years of uprising, most Syrians are so shellshocked and exhausted that all they hope for is a return to normalcy, even if it’s under Assad. So a lot of this pageantry we’re seeing around the polls is a sign of the exhaustion of the Syrian people, and of the complete chaos that reigns in the opposition ranks. Most Syrians looking out onto the political landscape today cannot see anyone but Assad who can bring stability. There are hundreds of armed militia groups in Syria. Were he to lose, there would be complete chaos.
Andrew Tabler: The election is not indicative of popular sentiment because Syrians are so incredibly fearful of the regime, and also politically divided. So it’s because of fear, and they’ve also been encouraged by their community leaders and employers to go to the polls. The turnout last week in Lebanon was not surprising; you have a lot of regime supporters there, and Hezbollah is deeply involved in the war.
Syria Deeply: How does Assad’s win affect his allies?
Landis: It supplies Russia and China with a certain amount of confidence. It says that they backed the right horse, and that their analysis of the Syrian conflict was correct. They posited at the beginning that the Middle East is not prepared for democracy and that you need a strongman to hold this country together, while the U.S. has stood by its freedom agenda.
Syria Deeply: How will the win affect the Syrian opposition, both on the ground and in exile?
Phillips: More than ever right now, you have this disparity between the opposition in exile and the opposition within Syria proper. The rebel-controlled north is a fragmented bunch of fiefdoms now, and some are moderate and some are radical jihadists. The election will have very little effect on [the ground opposition] because they’re looking at things entirely in a military prism.
In terms of the opposition in exile, it is interesting, because ever since they were established, they have been dependent on foreign support. They don’t have a direct connection to people on the ground in Syria. So they might be nervous that the more confident Assad appears, the more likely it is that one or more of their international patrons would consider cutting a deal with him. And if that happens, their raison d’etre disappears. The more acceptance Assad has from the international community, even if they don’t like him or want him to stay in power, the more irrelevant the opposition is.
Tabler: Assad’s re-election makes it very difficult to fold the moderate Syrian opposition into any type of negotiated settlement, because of Assad’s leadership role. What it means is we will have a divided Syria for the foreseeable future.
In addition, Assad only controls a certain amount of territory in the country, so dealing with problems in Syria just by flipping [power] back to Assad now doesn’t make much sense: he doesn’t have the manpower necessary to retake all of Syria’s territory.
Syria Deeply: What impact will this have on Syria’s standing in the international community?
Khouri: There’s a few countries that have sent observers that are more or less with him. Except for those countries, it aggravates the sense of disbelief that many people around the world have on how the Syrian regime is misbehaving. It reinforces sentiments that are critical of the regime and intensifies existing polarizations. As we see from Obama’s speech [last week] at West Point, recently there seems to be a slight pickup in American military support for the opposition and an increased flow of more sophisticated arms to opposition groups. We may be seeing a slight increase in the opposition’s desire to bring down Assad, alongside an increase in Assad’s desire in to keep his power.
Phillips: From the international perspective, this election extends the trend we’ve seen over last year, since the chemical weapons attack and Obama’s refusal to cross the “red line,” which is a seemingly gradual acceptance from the international community that Assad will stay in place and that the prospect of him toppling is greatly diminished now. He wouldn’t have held the election if he thought he’d be toppled. The election is a sign of confidence. The process almost doesn’t matter: there are two other candidates so it’s not a referendum as in the past. It’s an election being held to cement Assad’s position in power at a time that he and the regime and his supporters in Iran, China, Russia and Hezbollah feel that the regime is in it for the long haul and is likely to survive now.