The re-election plans of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad do not seem to have been affected by the grim picture painted by the UN’s recent economic report on Syria. According to the report, “Squandering Humanity“, covering the last two quarters of last year, Syria has become a country of poor people, with more than half the population (54.3 percent) unable to secure the most basic food and non-food items required for their survival. Some 20 percent face hunger, malnutrition and starvation.
After three years of conflict, the country has witnessed catastrophic population movements, with almost half of the nation’s population fleeing their original place of residence. Around 1.5 million persons have departed the country as migrants, while another 2.35 million people have fled the country as refugees. By the end of 2013, refugees from Syria had become the largest refugee population in the world.
According to the report, more than half of all school-age children (51.8 percent) no longer attend school. School nonattendance reached 90 percent in al-Raqqa and Aleppo and 68 percent in the suburbs of Damascus. By the end of 2013, 4,000 schools were out of service because they were destroyed, damaged or had been transformed to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The report confirms that the healthcare system has almost collapsed, with 61 out of the 91 public hospitals in Syria damaged and with almost half (45 percent) out of service.
The appalling loss of life is one of the most horrific aspects of the armed conflict the UN report speaks about, with the death toll rising by 30 percent to 130,000 deaths during the last six months of 2013. It is estimated that 520,000 persons – almost three percent of the population – were maimed, wounded or killed in the conflict.
Despite this horrific picture, Assad continues to do business as usual. He believes that re-election will grant him new legitimacy to rule, present the world with a fait accompli and provide him with a popular mandate to carry on with the security solution he adopted from the very beginning of the crisis. Hence, in order to secure a third seven-year term in office, Assad will be willing to do whatever it takes and use any resources at his disposal.
An arranged victory
Preparation for a landslide victory started as early as 2012, when, at the behest of his Iranian allies, the constitution was amended as part of a cosmetic reform package to help quash the popular uprising. At the time, Assad introduced some changes to the electoral process in order to give the impression that his election show is fairer than the single-candidate referendum, which was the norm in Syria during his father’s reign.
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Hence, unlike the previous elections of 2000 and 2007, in which he stood as the sole candidate, under the new constitution, Assad allowed multi-candidate elections, accepting the challenge of two lightweight rivals.
Yet, by monopolising the media and in the absence of an independent judiciary, he made certain that any possible challenger would not get more than five percent of the popular vote. Thus the outcome would not be very much different from the previous elections, when he received 97 percent of the votes.
To prevent any surprise, no matter how minor it might be, the outside opposition was not allowed to compete. The electoral law stipulates that any candidate should have spent the past 10 years inside the country. Syrian refugees who might turn the tide against Assad have also been made ineligible to vote. Only those who have a valid passport and have left the country legally are allowed to vote. The Syrian interior ministry announced that only 200,000 Syrians outside the country will be eligible to vote out of nearly three million Syrian refugees.
By the end of this process, the Syrian regime will be prepared to announce the death of the Geneva process. In pro-Assad circles, the belief that the regime has weathered the storm and has come one further step closer to victory is gathering pace. Their attitude is that Assad’s expected victory would justify not forming a “transitional body with full authority” to help end the three-year conflict, as the Geneva declaration of June 30, 2012 requires. For the regime, that was not only completely unnecessary, but it was not the right recipe to deal with the problem. The crisis was – and remains – about foreign terrorists and local extremists who encroached on Syrians’ tranquil life and that they need to be eradicated not negotiated with.
For the regime, the Western powers will condemn the elections, impose more economic sanctions, present new resolutions at the UN Security Council, and they might even increase aid to the opposition, but that will not transform the nature of the conflict or fundamentally change the balance of power on the ground.
The Russians will always be prepared to provide a political shield at the Security Council; the Iranians will always make sure that the balance of power remains in the regime’s favour by funnelling more weapons and fighters; and the Americans will always make sure that the Syrian regime does not collapse under pressure from the armed opposition groups. President Barack Obama’s May 28 West Point speech on foreign policy was absolutely clear on not allowing a military solution to the Syrian conflict; that includes a victory by the regime and its allies.
Having said all that, Assad’s re-election will only contribute to making things even worse than they already are. The fear now is that as Syria is increasingly a battleground for regional and international powers, the nation, the society and the state as we knew them may have been lost forever.
Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer. He holds a PhD degree in International Relations. He is an Associate Political Analyst at the Doha Institute.