US Congress passes sanctions targeting politicians, institutions, businesses that engage with the Syrian government.
Syria held parliamentary elections across government-controlled areas of the country on Sunday, as President Bashar al-Assad marks 20 years in power amid a continuing war and deep economic woes.
More than 2,000 candidates, including businessmen under recently imposed US sanctions, are running in the legislative election – the third since the start of the 2011 protests and ensuing civil war.
The elections, originally scheduled for April, have been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although several lists are running in the polls, real opposition to al-Assad’s Baath Party is absent in the election.
Opposition groups traditionally tolerated by the government are expected to boycott the vote and the Baath Party is guaranteed to monopolise the new parliament as it has done in previous elections.
In the last vote in 2016, the Baath and its allies took 200 of the 250-seat parliament while the remaining posts went to independent candidates.
Syria’s state news agency SANA showed images of voters casting their ballots inside some of the 7,277 polling centres in the country, including former rebel-held areas that the army recaptured over the last two years.
“Today is a political victory that is added to the military victories,” said Hussein Arnous, Syria’s prime minister.
However, the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition bloc based in Turkey, called it a “theatrical election by the Assad regime”.
Observers say the contest lacks credibility with the majority of candidates being either part of al-Assad’s Baath Party or loyal to his regime.
“The majority of Syrians believe the election is only a process controlled by the regime to represent itself as a legitimate authority in Syria,” said Zaki Mehchy, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House and co-founder of the Syrian Centre for Policy Research.
“People know that the majority of MPs are nominated by the Baath party and all of them need to have security approval based on loyalty and not qualifications,” he added.
Karam Shaar, an expert on Syria at the Middle East Institute, said: “The al-Assad regime uses parliamentary elections to reward loyalty. This time around, warlords and militiamen are expected to gain yet more seats for their contributions to the state over the past four years.”
More than 7,000 polling stations have been set up across about 70 percent of the country where the al-Assad government maintains control.
Government forces have been pushing to regain control over areas overtaken by opposition and rebel groups since the start of the war.
Al-Assad’s troops regained control over Eastern Ghouta in 2018 and southern parts of Idlib after the launch of a Russian-backed offensive to retake the northwest province in late 2019.
Other parts of Idlib remain as the last rebel-held bastion in the country, while large swaths of land along the Turkey-Syria border house millions of internally displaced Syrians from the war.
Syrians living abroad, including millions of refugees forced to leave their homes because of fighting, will not be taking part in the election.
Citizens casting their ballots in Sunday’s vote are expected to focus on soaring living costs and the country’s dire economic situation.
“As nearly 90 percent of the country plunges into poverty, people are increasingly focusing on meeting their basic needs,” said Shaar.
Syria’s economy has been in freefall over the past few months with the pound losing about 70 percent of its value, making the price of basic commodities now unaffordable to many Syrians.
Still, observers say most Syrians believe the parliament is not the right channel to solve their economic problems.
“The economic situation is choking the average Syrian in both government and rebel areas,” said independent researcher Malak Chabkoun.
She explained a deteriorating economy and US sanctions will be at the forefront of the voting agenda, but people will be casting their ballots for candidates “they were told [by the government] to vote for”.
“The Baath Party candidates have [also] added US sanctions to their platform this time around to garner support and cry victim,” she added, referring to a range of newly-imposed US sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, that target companies, institutions, and individuals doing business with the al-Assad government.
While analysts say the legislation affects the al-Assad government and its local and foreign backers, humanitarian efforts and civilians in Syria, and neighbouring Lebanon, have also been affected by the sanctions.
After the vote, the new parliament plans to approve a new constitution, and al-Assad is expected to name a new prime minister. The new parliament will also be expected to approve candidates for the next presidential election.
But experts say the international community will not recognise the vote.
“The international community and political opposition groups will not recognise this parliament as a legitimate one,” said Mehchy.
“A new constitution can be only approved by a new parliament based on a transparent election in which refugees and Syrians outside the country have the right to vote,” he explained, adding the coming parliament will only approve candidates “nominated and approved by the security agencies”.
Al-Assad came to power at the age of 34 in 2000 after nearly 30 years of his father’s rule. He was elected for a third seven-year term in 2014, with the government claiming more than 88 percent of the votes were in his favour.
His time in power has been marred by a bloody civil war that has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions of Syrians displaced inside and outside of the country.
Commenting on al-Assad’s 20 years in power, Chabkoun said: “Bashar has continued the same pattern [as his father’s] of quelling any opposition, disappearing people who speak out against his government, and continuing to control the goods and resources of the country for his family and friends’ own gain.”
According to Freedom House, the Syrian government is considered “one of the world’s most repressive regimes”, which along with “other belligerent forces”, has severely compromised Syrians’ political rights and civil liberties.
According to Mehchy, al-Assad’s rule has been “a catastrophic era, especially the years of conflict since 2011”, which he said the government’s policies during the first 10 years contributed towards as “root causes”.
“These policies neglected the economic and political exclusion that the majority of Syrians were suffering from,” said Mehchy.