On Wednesday 26 March Syria held the presidential election, and a day later it was announced that Baššār al-Asad won yet another term. Nor the result, nor its 95,1% ratio came as any surprise. Partly because there were no real rivalry with only two, almost insignificant other candidates, and partly because the situation changed drastically around Syria.
With this, we could say that the same old thing happened again. An election was conducted with a largely staged appearance, and the crisis slowly suffocating Syria for ten years will go on. So there are no stakes, there was no point.
Many things, however, drastically changed, even compared to the last elections in 2014. This time, unlike seven years ago, the Western media only made light attempts to ridicule the process or give any weight to it. It largely chose simply just not to talk about. The other major shift is that this time despite the major Western opponents, there were hardly any critical comments about in the diplomatic arena, and no one from the Arab world. Quite contrary, the congratulations outweighed the condemnations.
There is a reason for this lack of interest by the Western mainstream media, just like from the Arab mass channels. While ten years ago everything Syrian took up a significant part of the screen time for all these outlets, this time hardly even bothered to mention the elections and even less Baššār al-Asad’s victory. The simple explanation is that those, who were counting al-Asad days all those years ago are mostly out of office by now, the countries have changed directions and many even mended fences with Damascus.
But has anything really changed for Syria with this? Or this is again just another episode in the history of the country’s crisis? What can be expected from Baššār al-Asad, and what happened during this election, especially afterward?
A lighthearted rivalry
Given Syria’s constitution and traditions, it was known for years that this summer there will be presidential elections sometime in the summer. It was even less of a question that unless some extreme miracle happens, or foreign armies take over the country Baššār al-Asad would run for office again, and most probably win. Not only because the country at this point can not allow a sudden change, but also because the president is still very popular. This was perfectly proven in these elections, though not necessarily by the same numbers most people watch in the Western world.
The whole election process started on 19 April, when the registration started for possible candidates. 51 people signed up, including seven women, but in the end, only three people were let through by the Supreme Constitutional Court. President Baššār al-Asad and two lightweight alternatives. They were ‘Abd Allah Sallūm ‘Abd Allah, a member of a party allied to the ruling Ba‘at Party, thus being a practical ally of the President, and Maḥmūd Mara‘ī, a true member of the country’s internal opposition, though fairly unknown and with very limited popular support. And mostly in a Middle Eastern country unless things are really getting desperate or out of control population usually favors stability over uncertainty. That is especially true now in Syria after tens of desperate wars are coming to an end.
President Baššār al-Asad had a modest program with the slogan: “al-Amal bil-‘Amal” (Hope is in the work), and a colorful massive campaign, but with very few promises or changes offered. The other two candidates had even smaller rallies, with the very little spotlight falling upon them both internally and internationally. This is how we arrived at last week’s elections, in which the President gained another seven-year term. It all seemed like an easily won scheme. But the picture is not that simple.
But even apart from this internal political process, there was no realistic alternative to the ruling state system anyways. The opposition once cherished in the West became practically evaporated. What is left are pockets of mercenary bands in Idlib solely dependent on the Turkish army, and some insignificant political clubs trying to act as a form of government, while in the East there is mainly Kurdish “Qasad” militia, which is equally dependent on the American occupation. It has become clear that without these outer supporters there is no organized force in Syria posing any alternatives. In 2021 these are in no condition to take over the country, as they are hugely unpopular, even in areas not sympathizing with the President. There are still many, who dislike the current Syrian state leadership, but most of them are scattered in the Syrian diaspora in America, Germany, and Turkey, and they are largely disorganized. There is no “counter-offer”, and even less any organized alternative, especially by non-fanatical groups. This, however, does not mean that this election had no stakes.
The whole internal process hasn’t even started yet, when the EU announced that it will not accept the results and will renew the most severe sanctions against Syria in May, just in time for the elections. This was followed by Washington in a similar fashion. Upon this “logic” and clearly contradicting the so far promoted idea that the Syrian crisis can only have political solutions, many Western prohibited elections on their grounds in the Syrian embassies. The contradiction is that they did not even try to promote an alternative, nor suggest any alteration to the elections. They just simply disregarded it beforehand. As time went by, most Western and Gulf outlets either totally ignored the matter, mentioning it largely focused on the crisis and areas like Idlib still not being under government control, or just mocked it. Clearly, the main idea was simply just not to talk about it. And even more, probably not a coincidence either, there were suggestions in February that the President al-Asad would be exchanged with a military council uniting the government and the opposition, or a military figure would take his place. A very dangerous suggestion, which at some point truly became part of the national dialogue, but nothing came of it. It shows that there were attempts to put pressure on Damascus, only there was no alternative. There is none.
The unwanted reality
The main reality that the Western media, nor the West’s political class does not want to admit is that the election was a huge success for Damascus. The real indicator for that is not the 95,1% winning ratio. The list of candidates and most probably the election itself had “helping hands” in them and there was never any doubt of the outcome, which even disheartened any motivation for the alternative candidates. But what is significant is the 78% turnout in the elections and the massive celebrations after the victory.
Even if we consider that the 78% turnout ratio was somewhat inflated that still shows massive participation in an otherwise criticizable election process. This clearly shows that despite all the problems and the crisis the Baššār al-Asad still has massive support. In this light, it is understandable why the Western media chose not even to comment on the election. It would have been extremely difficult to explain these celebrating scenes upon the “bloody dictator” image, which has been created during the last ten years. And it would have been even more difficult to explain how could many of the celebrations occur abroad, clearly beyond the grasp of the Syrian state authority.
Celebrations by Syrians in Lebanon after the announcement that Baššār al-Asad won ten elections
Yes, the result was clear even before the process ever started. But it was still important for a very significant part of the population to take part in it nonetheless, show support, and vote for the president. That itself does show support. Especially that the elections went smooth with no major incidents reported. This was impossible nine years ago with the war going on, but even seven years ago a part of the country could not take part in the elections. In many parts of the Arab world, schemes can be put together, but there is also indifference or massive protests afterward. Here, however, we see the opposite.
This poses the question, what has really changed, which allowed such a smooth election? The most obvious answer is that this is the result of the war and its practical end. During the years of the war, it became clear what sort of opposition was forming, what sort of forces are standing behind them and their behavior was “tested” in many parts of the country. Clearly, there is no longing for that. There is dissatisfaction towards the government, but much more for any form of opposition. On the other hand, this opposition practically evaporated into three distinct groups. Clearly terrorist mercenaries in Idlib under Turkish patronage, a shrinking group around the leaders of formally bigger fighting groups messed up mostly in Turkey and a small, ineffective group of intellectuals in the West. That is why the Syrian state has little trouble controlling the areas it liberated, not counting the clashes with Qasad and the terrorist in Idlib, and occasional clashes in Dar‘ā.
What really symbolizes this change is that President al-Asad himself chose to vote in the city of Dūmā just outside of the capital, which was during the war a massive stronghold for the armed groups. This time, however, he visited the city with his wife with a little escort, massively surrounded by people, and even stayed on to give a speech. Again, something unimaginable even three years ago.
Yet what really changed is the regional setup, which accepted the reality. The reality that Baššār al-Asad will stay in power and the Syrian state system will not be altered, not even giving major concessions, at least not to its enemies. By now there is an obviously more supportive Egyptian, Lebanese and Jordanian approach, and the reconciliation in the Gulf also acts in this way. The most significant Gulf player, Saudi Arabia walks on a very conciliatory path towards Tehran in these weeks, especially its Crown Prince once being the most fervent enemies of Iran. Probably as part of this process in early May, a high-ranking Saudi delegation visited Damascus led by the director of the Saudi Intelligence. This comes after several attempts by the Emirates for reconciliation and steps by other Arab states, like Algeria, or Tunisia to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League and to the general Arab fold.
What does this all mean? It means that the war is over. There are no major sponsors for the armed groups fighting against the government anymore because they failed and what is even more problematic, their true nature is revealed. There are way bigger matters now in the region and none has any interest, or spare resources for this matter anymore. Those, who are left, Turkey, Qatar, and the U.S. also have no vision for the future. They simply don’t know how to end this gamble, but they are not in any rush.
What does the future hold?
It could be said sarcastically that nothing has changed. The “regime” got back to its form, its control over Syria to the level before 2011, though with some areas out of its control. Yet the picture is not that simple.
According to the current Syrian constitution accepted in February 2012, a president can only take two consecutive terms in a row. Since this constitution came into effect this was the second election, meaning theoretically Baššār al-Asad has only seven years left. No doubt the Middle East is the place where such technicalities can easily be overruled with an amendment. But that needs support, even much more than what the president has today. And such a change cannot come at the last second.
This lays out the two major focuses of the government. For one, completely ending the war with the expulsion of the Turkish forces from Idlib, and the Americans from the East. This was suggested many times before and pointed out immediately again after the election by Syrian State Mufti Ḥassūn. With a changing relational dynamic and an American administration turning away from the Middle East – last seen by the lack of interest in the last Gaza war – this is not impossible at all. And there has been significant notions by Washington that this might not be within weeks, but the Americans are considering moving out completely. Especially that America’s regional allies are less keen to support this presence and relying on the Qasad militia clearly fails.
For the second main focus, the economy and the living conditions have to be raised. Which is an enormous task, especially with the Western sanctions still active today. Regardless of the considerable Russian and Iranian support it is very difficult, this help comes at a price and so far failed to significantly improve the situation. It is only enough now to avoid collapse.
As soon as the still-occupied areas return reconstruction has to be started immediately, and even if they are successful, this has to give way to the massive return of the refugees. These tasks are massive for the next 3-5 years.
Nonetheless, this election was a victory for Syria. Simply because it could have been done. The speech by the president after the victory, regardless of how sad it looked, clearly shows that the war is over. What is left is the conclusion and the rebuilding. This is still a huge task, but so far the beginning of the road is surrounded by overwhelming celebrations.
What an irony that the same media, which ten years ago followed every gathering 24 hours a day in Syria even is the smallest village, all claiming to let the people of Syria be heard, failed to even mention the massive rallies all over the country now! It would have painted a very different picture.