As Assad Prepares Election Victory Speech, West Faces Dilemma

Upcoming vote in Syria may be a farce, but it would give Russia and Iran a formal reason to support Assad as a democratically-elected president.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian President Bashar Assad chats with people during his visit to Ein al-Tinah village, northeast of Damascus April 20, 2014.
Syrian President Bashar Assad chats with people during his visit to Ein al-Tinah village, northeast of Damascus April 20, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

This is how a normal, functioning country operates, one that is concerned with the health of its citizens: A small report in the state-owned Tishrin newspaper revealed that trade ministry inspectors in south Syria confiscated 5,000 cans of hummus with tahini. The reason: The cans did not contain at least eight percent of tahini, as required by law. The same article also reported that the ministry is looking into 3,000 lawsuits over illegal price hikes and other transgressions "which infringe on the rights of citizens."

True, the price of gas has skyrocketed in Syria, and inflation is nearing 65 percent; basic products are scarce, and the prime minister has urged citizens to save water and power (even as many places have no running water or electricity).

But it's good to know that someone in Syria is looking after citizens and inspecting the contents of their hummus. Providing they live in areas controlled by the regime.

This week, after a two-year siege, the Syrian army entered the old city in Homs, dubbed "the capital of the revolt." It took the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah to reach an agreement with the armed rebels, who began - under UN supervision - to leave the city over the past two days. The provincial governor declared on Wednesday that "Homs is from now on a safe zone," yet pockets of resistance remain in Syria's third-largest city. The western quarters are still controlled by Free Syrian Army militias, and battles still rage north of the city.

The accord permits rebels to leave the city carrying only their personal light weapons, and stipulates that those who turn themselves in will be treated with leniency.

This is an important, successful step for Syrian President Bashar Assad, yet it is has not sealed the war. Two days ago, the luxury Carlton Hotel was obliterated in an explosion in Aleppo, a city that has become the headquarters of various Syrian military commands. The bomb was a blow to Assad, who has no response in his arsenal for such attacks. Armed militias still control many parts of the north, the battles in the south have yet to subside and the Syrian opposition, headed by Ahmad Al-Jarba, is still hoping Washington will sign off on supplying the Free Army with anti-aircraft missiles to counter the brutal aerial attacks.

Arab journalists who visited Aleppo say Syrian citizens have developed special methods to avoid such strikes – driving far apart from other vehicles, disconnecting the brake lights to avoid identification and imposing a total ban on smoking in taxis (for fear that even a cigarette light may disclose the location of the car.) While aerial strikes continue to demolish villages and city districts, it is doubtful the U.S. administration will approve the supply of missiles, fearing they could end up in the hands of Islamist militias, who might turn them against other aircraft.

Washington still believes that the military conflict can be waged without introducing better weaponry, and wants to carry on with training of rebels in Jordan. This policy is aimed at preserving the U.S. position of supporting the rebels while not necessarily counting on their victory (especially after the Qalamoun mountain region on the Lebanese border, a critical logistical route for the rebels, was taken by the Syrian army.)

While the U.S. weighs its options and Europe remains mostly silent, Assad is working to legitimize his presidency in the June 3 elections. The elections committee is currently reviewing seven candidacies, including that of engineer Sawsan Haddad from Latakia, as if this was an open and fair democratic process.

According to the election committee's guidelines, all of Syria's citizens can take part in the process, except those who left the country illegally – meaning about 2.5 million refugees and displaced persons, and millions more living in out-of-reach militia-controlled areas. In addition, the White House has asked the Lebanese government not to allow Syrian refugees within its borders to vote.

Furthering ethnic divides

As the opposition claims, these elections are undoubtedly a farce, but for Assad and his allies, the vote carries significance. It would give Russia and Iran a formal excuse to support Assad as a president who was democratically elected by the people, thus solidifying their position against the Western demands to remove him. Publicly, the two countries have claimed they do not support any specific leader, and that the Syrian people alone will determine its leadership. After the elections, they could claim their position reflects the public will.

But beyond this ridiculous spectacle, the elections will portray the Alawites and the Christians as Assad's allies, thereby deepening the ethnic-religious schism between the minorities - who see the regime as key to their survival - and the majority of the Sunni population, which perceives the minorities as a treacherous element working against the will of the people.

Strengthening Assad's base could also – at least in the short term – thwart any further attempts for political reconciliation: If until now the opposition agreed to talk to representatives from the regime only under the condition that Assad will be ousted, his reelection will make such a demand impossible. Furthermore, parties wishing to convene another international conference to address the Syrian crisis could no longer ignore Assad's bolstered status as president-elect. If Assad's continued rule is no longer in question, the dilemma facing the U.S. and Europe will be whether to continue to support the anti-Assad militias or rally against the Islamist resistance movements.

Supporting Assad could mean a more efficient campaign against those organizations which may turn Syria into another Iraq. The U.S. would easily enlist the help of Russia and Iran in such a campaign. On the other hand, such a sharp policy change could destroy the credibility of Western powers and lead to a crisis in relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar - two vehemently anti-Assad countries. It seems no decision will be made before the elections; at most, one could expect more treaties like the one signed with the Homs rebels, aimed at easing the suffering of citizens.

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