Election fever hit the Middle East, from Egypt, which over the past three days elected a not-new president, to Iraq which elected a parliament, to Iraqi Kurdistan which chose an old president to lead it, to the elections that will take place in Syria on Tuesday.
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In the Syrian case there is no need for public opinion surveys, no opportunity to make any wild guesses or learned assessments. The man who has been president is the man who will remain president. Supposedly, the six million eligible voters left in the country (or 15 million by the regime's count) will give serious consideration as to which of the three remaining candidates out of seven they wish to cast their vote for. But even the façade of democracy cannot meet any test. Out of the country's 23 million citizens, four million are now uprooted or refugees that have left Syria. Another two million do not live in their homes. Out of those who remain, the election committees will disqualify anyone without identifying documents – more than a million people are estimated to have lost their papers in the course of the fighting.
Syrian citizens permanently living abroad are eligible to vote at polling places set up in Syrian embassies, but there are just 300,000-500,000 such eligible voters, and many of them have decided not to take part in this election. The refugees are not counted among the eligible voters, so as to avoid a situation in which Bashar Assad's opponents would win a majority in the election abroad. The Syrian regime has graciously invited the refugees to return to their homeland if they wish to exercise their civil right.
Why would Assad decide to hold these elections when aside from Iran, China and Russia, no other country views them as a legitimate political move? The official explanation is that it's the law. As a state founded on a proper system of law, Syria was obligated to hold a presidential election, when the constitution was amended in accordance with Assad's outline. But this election, beyond its importance for Assad, will serve as an important diplomatic tool in the hands of his allies, Russia and Iran. For the past three years, both have stood firm against all attempts to oust Assad from power and to undermine his international legitimacy. Russia and Iran have disingenuously adhered to the slogan "We will support whoever is elected by the Syrian people" and that the government in Syria is "a matter for the Syrian people." Very nice slogans, as long as the people do their bidding.
Thus, holding the election has become crucial for them so that in the international arena, in the UN, where Russia has used its veto power to create a safety net for the Assad regime, there can be no pretext for an international operation against the regime. As if an elected president is a protected president and any action against him must be considered illegitimate. Russia has apparently forgotten how it hastened to do business with Abdel Fattah al-Sissi right after he ousted an elected president, Mohammed Morsi.
Assad's guaranteed election came along with a $250 million grant from Russia to Damascus this week, though this was practically a token sum considering the Syrian administration's needs. A report compiled by the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research, in conjunction with the UN and the International Monetary Fund, found that Syria has lost about 40 percent of its GDP over the three years of the war, and that the damage to residential and government buildings alone amounts to nearly $144 billion.
Approximately four thousand schools are shut down and half of the schoolchildren in the country have no school to go to (In Aleppo and Deir a-Zor, the rate is as high as 70 percent), and the national debt is now at 126 percent of GDP. What this means for the ordinary Syrian is a severe shortage of medicines, doctors, equipment for treating the wounded, and horrendous poverty in urban districts under the regime's control, with 11 million people having lost their source of livelihood. As a result, the social fabric has been shattered; about half of the citizenry no longer lives in their original neighborhoods, 400,000 Palestinian refugees have left the country, and the Syrian refugee community is now the biggest in the world.
This week the Security Council is due to hold another hearing on humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians, with the aim of making a binding resolution that will lead to the implementation of a previous resolution from February that has yet to be translated into action. And so begins once again the pirouette around the wording of the resolution, with it not being entirely clear whether the real aim is to aid the Syrian victims or to finally obtain a resolution that Russia won't veto, even if it won't really permit the transfer of aid. In media interviews, opposition leaders note the vast disparity between the aid that the regime is receiving from its friends and the limited aid that they are receiving. They acknowledge that all the divisions among the rebel militias is hurting their ability to create a joint leadership that could work more effectively, but they can't understand why, in the humanitarian sphere at least, the international community is showing such helplessness.
Evidence of this helplessness could be found in a speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting of the Friends of Syria, held recently in London, when he said, practically pleading, "We are open to the idea of providing aid through any means that will get to the people who need it,. We are very frustrated with the current process. It is not getting to people. It’s going through one gate, one entryway, and it’s going through Damascus and/or controlled by the Assad regime. That’s unacceptable. We need to be able to get aid more directly, and we’re going to work to do that.” And just what will America and its partners do? Go in with force? Have their forces escort the aid convoys? Fight against the regime forces that are blocking the aid shipments?
And whatever happened to military aid to the rebels? The Wall Street Journal did report this week that President Obama may give approval for an expanded training program under the supervision of the CIA, to be carried out at bases in Jordan. This would yield thousands more well-trained rebels who would be armed with high-quality weaponry. But the anti-aircraft missiles desperately needed to halt the lethal attacks from the air are still not on the agenda. The debate within the administration is whether to make the details of the training program public or keep it classified. The hesitation over the diplomatic, not the military, implications – i.e., whether to make clear America's expanded military involvement in the Syrian crisis and thereby anger Russia, which is liable to respond in kind, or to continue with the current system in which such training is conducted on a relatively small scale, and to maintain international quiet.
What's interesting is that the objective of increasing aid to the rebels is described as being part of an effort to combat Al-Qaida-related terrorist organizations and not necessarily against the Syrian regime. If this is indeed the aim, it's hard to see just how it can be ensured that the arms meant for the war against Al-Qaida won't be used for other purposes. More important is the contradiction in the definition of the objective, for if it's the war on Al-Qaida that's the most important focus right now, then cooperation with the Assad regime could be equally effective, especially when some of the rebel militias are cooperating in the field with radical religious organizations, some of which support Al-Qaida. In any event, the leak of the American plan seems to indicate that Washington wants to make it known that it is unimpressed by the Syrian presidential election and still intends to see Assad ousted. But the adherence to this goal is making it hard to convince the militia commanders in Syria and the leaders of the political opposition operating from outside the country.
The situation in Syria is increasingly starting to resemble what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan after the American occupation, when organizations rather than the central government became the most significant military and political force. Assad's election as Syria's president won't change this reality. It may just cause the international community to get used to the ongoing crisis, which will go from being a crisis that requires a quick solution to one that just has to be managed.