Campaigning has begun for Syria’s June 3 presidential elections. President Bashar al-Assad faces two contenders for the country’s top job. By annulling the bids of 21 other candidates, found to be ineligible to run for office, the Syrian Constitutional Court has essentially guaranteed Assad a third seven-year term. In effect, there is only one presidential candidate on the ballot and his name is Bashar al-Assad.
In addition to the difficulties of administering the vote in a time of war, the two nominal challengers – Abdul-Hafiz al-Hajjar and Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nuri – are technocrats unknown to the public and possess no social constituency, turning the election into a predictable referendum on Assad.
From June 4 onward, Assad will present his internal and external foes with a fait accompli, a new mandate which would reassure and consolidate his base at home and maximise his bargaining position abroad. For Assad, the vote is a continuation of war by other means and the ballot box is a more important front than the raging military battles in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. Assad would have conceded defeat if he had not sought another presidential term. The two battlefields are thus intertwined.
Assad will present his internal and external foes with a fait accompli, a new mandate which would reassure and consolidate his base at home and maximise his bargaining position abroad. For Assad, the vote is a continuation of war by other means and the ballot box is a more important front than the raging military battles in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
Mocking the vote as a “farce”, the opposition and Western powers would like to wish it away, belittle it and insist on denying Assad legitimacy. Burying their heads in the sand, Assad’s enemies react haphazardly and lack a coherent and operationalised strategy to stop his advance. They seem paralysed and powerless to force Assad to change his ways, relying on old tactics that have proven ineffective.
Resourceful and ruthless
While Damascus and its allies – particularly Iran, Hezbollah and Russia – have been resourceful and ruthless in their war game plan, the anti-Assad coalition is deeply divided and suffers from a fatal disconnect between goals, means and ideologies. Beyond Assad’s removal from power, there is little unity among the opposition front. In contrast, Assad and his partners share unity of purpose and ranks.
On a visit to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, opposition chief Ahmad Jarba said the vote was taking place on “the dead bodies of Syrians” and would give Assad “a licence… to kill his own people for many years to come”. He also called on the US to provide the rebels with advanced arms to change the balance of power on the ground.
To show its support, the Obama administration said it would recognise Jarba’s Syrian National Coalition offices as a diplomatic foreign mission and announced plans for a $27m increase in non-lethal assistance to rebels.
Designed to reiterate the US position that Assad has lost legitimacy to govern Syria and to strengthen the SNC at a perilous moment for the religious-nationalist organisation, it also underlines Obama’s abhorrence for direct intervention in the war-torn country. Although Obama’s meeting with Jarba is symbolically important, it does not signal a qualitative shift in US policy towards Syria.
Informed by realism, Obama cautiously and modestly backs the “moderate opposition” and recently supplied anti-tank missiles called TOWS to the rebels, though it has refrained from providing portable anti-aircraft weapons, such as MANPADS that could fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked fighters like al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Greater Syria) known by its Arabic acronym, “Daish”.
Obama has resisted calls by critics at home and regional allies for a more interventionist approach in order to change Assad’s calculation. His reluctance rests on two concerns: 1) US national interests are not directly involved in Syria; and 2) a muscular approach might be counterproductive, triggering a region-wide conflict. The US-Russian rivalry in Syria and Ukraine also imposes constraints on Obama’s ability and willingness to intervene actively in the country’s killing fields.
Where does this leave the opposition which is overwhelmingly dependent on external support? It is doubtful if the ideologically and sociologically fragmented opposition can level the playing battlefield with the Assad coalition, let alone deliver a decisive blow. As things stand, the odds are against the opposition.
No centralised command-and-control
The lack of advanced weapons is one of the least challenges facing armed opposition groups, which wage battle more like local and regional militias than an organised fighting force. With no centralised command-and-control, the armed factions do not strategically coordinate with one another and, time and again squander important gains that could have turned into a breakthrough. The opposition’s loss of the Qalamoun region between Damascus and Homs is a case in point.
More importantly, the war within the opposition, particularly Daish, on the one hand, and al-Nusra Front and ultraconservative Islamists and religious nationalists on the other, has exacted a heavy toll on skilled fighters. The Free Syrian Army is the weakest link in the chain pressed between a rock, Assad’s forces, and a hard place, al-Qaeda-linked militants.
In early May, al-Nusra Front, the official arm of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda, kidnapped top FSA commander, Ahmed Nehmeh, a former air force colonel, and a few of his lieutenants in Deraa after he had criticised extremist groups.
The opposition’s disarray has played into Assad’s hands. In the past year, the tide of war has decisively shifted in his favour. He has not only weathered the violent storm but has gone on the offensive. His army, with critical help from Hezbollah and Iran, has regained control of major urban centres in Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo to a lesser extent, consolidating its grip on the western half of the country.
Last week’s retreat of almost 1,500 rebels from Homs, the “capital of the revolution” and Syria’s third-largest city, is a strategic gain for Assad which will add to his momentum before the presidential vote early next month.
Given inherent structural constraints, the most that the opposition could do is to wage a war of attrition against the Damascus government, a war with unpredictable consequences and prohibitive costs. Meanwhile on the campaign trail, Assad and his supporters will celebrate a new mandate and promise an exhausted and bleeding Syrian public a pyrrhic victory.
Fawaz A Gerges holds the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of several books, including “The New Middle East: Social Protest and Revolution in the Arab World”.