As the fighting escalates on the killing fields of Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has decided to hold elections on June 3, guaranteeing that Assad will win another seven-year term and bringing an end to the Geneva diplomatic track. The United Nations, the League of the Arab States, the European Union and the United States condemned the move as hampering efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the conflict.
Assad’s decision is premised on the idea that Geneva is no longer viable because he has gained the upper hand against his enemies inside and outside Syria. He recently told students and staff of the Political Science Department at Damascus University, that the war has reached a “turning point” due to his forces’ military gains and that major battles could be over by the end of the year.
Recent visitors to the presidential compound in Damascus say that Assad seems very confident and convinced that military victory is near at hand. The mood and attitude among his inner circle and loyal backers at home and in neighbouring countries have also brightened, believing that the fury of the storm has already passed.
Recent visitors to the presidential compound in Damascus say that Assad seems very confident and convinced that military victory is near at hand. The mood and attitude among his inner circle and loyal backers at home and neighbouring countries have also brightened, believing that the fury of the storm has already passed.
As Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose intervention on Assad’s side almost a year ago marked a turning point, told the Lebanese publication al-Safir: “In my estimation, the phase of overthrowing the regime and overthrowing the state is over.” He added that rebels “cannot overthrow the regime [but] they can wage a war of attrition”.
Nasrallah also said that it was only “natural” for Assad to put himself forward for a third presidential term.
Has the tide turned?
Thus Assad’s decision is the culmination of the past year, a period in which the tide of war appears to have turned in Assad’s favour. His army, which is bolstered by skilled Hezbollah fighters and Iranian command-and-control, has been on the offensive and has achieved significant tactical gains in Damascus, Homs and even Aleppo, the three biggest urban centres in the country.
Although Assad lacks the manpower and means to deliver a decisive blow to the opposition and extend his authority over the whole country, he gambles that his accumulated tactical successes could ultimately secure him a strategic victory. At this point, many would argue that this is more wishful thinking than reality. The rough configuration of forces on the ground, including the deepening involvement of regional and international powers, ensures that neither side could deliver a decisive blow. At a minimum, he calculates he has survived the violent storm and that while in tatters, his ship is not sinking as many had falsely predicted. In effect, he is right to assume that for the foreseeable future, his survival is assured.
The disarray and infighting among the political opposition and the armed factions battling Assad reinforce his belief that the opposition could not militarily prevail and that the terms of Geneva I – establishing a transitional authority with full executive powers – are overtaken by new realities on the battlefield.
Assad has only contempt for members of the Syrian National Coalition whom he dismisses as lackeys of their regional and Western “masters”, meaning Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US. This disdain was on public display during the UN-sponsored Geneva II talks when the official Syrian delegation called their SNC counterparts “traitors” to the homeland – albeit, the opposition’s demands resonate with many Syrians and have received widespread international support.
In this sense, Geneva II was a great disappointment for Assad who is deeply opposed to making fundamental concessions to the opposition, let alone relinquishing power. Similarly, the opposition also eschews political compromise with the Assad regime. From the beginning to the end during the Geneva talks, the Assad team insisted that discussion of “terrorism” be prioritised as opposed to the formation of a transitional authority. While the scourge of terrorism is ravaging Syria, only a political solution between the Assad government and the opposition can eradicate it.
Given Assad’s state of mind, it is doubtful that he would participate in another round of Geneva II or even a Geneva III. His close adviser Bouthaina Shaaban put it bluntly: “I don’t see any factors promoting a return to Geneva… If it is to be convened, we want to see a seriousness from all parties to pursue a political solution which we did not see last time.”
An agreeable political solution
For Assad’s inner circle, the basic tenets of an agreeable political solution entail a fundamental shift of priorities whereby regional and great powers, together with the SNC, join the Syrian government to do battle against foreign fighters. Far from retiring into the sunset, Assad would spearhead the fight against terrorism. At most, acceptable members of the opposition would be allocated a few seats in a newly-formed cabinet.
Assad would not have sought a third presidential term if Iran and Russia, his two powerful patrons, had advised against it. Both have tipped the scales in his favour and obviously view him as indispensable. This explains Assad’s ability to resist the powerful regional and international coalition battling his regime and to go on the offensive. Indeed, the new proxy battle playing out in Ukraine between Russia and the US would stiffen President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to resist Western efforts to unseat Assad. The Ukraine crisis will most likely intensify the great power struggle over Syria and the Greater Middle East.
Assad presents his enemies in and out of Syria with a fait accompli, which they would have no choice – in his view – but to grudgingly accept. What he neglects to consider is that his move will not only prolong the war for years to come but also deepen and widen foreign involvement in the war-torn country. Assad could have rescued Syria from further destruction had he postponed the vote and even declined to put himself forward for a third presidential term. In doing so, he would have shown that the future of the country is much more important than one man and one family.
Fawaz A Gerges holds the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is author of several books, including “The New Middle East: Social Protest and Revolution in the Arab World”.