Syria’s vote and the will of neighbouring countries

What’s most telling about the election is not how it turned out in Syria, but the way Assad fared in Lebanon and Jordan.

Assad's family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years [AP]

On June 3, the Syrian people voted. While the vote count is still underway, it is safe to assume Bashar al-Assad has won. Does it really matter?

It does. Arguing about the legality, legitimacy, validity and necessity of the election is a futile exercise. Each side will repeat its case.

What is most telling about the election is not the way the vote turned out on Syrian territory, rather the way Assad polled in Lebanon and Jordan. In each of those two bordering countries, over a million long-suffering refugees, voted with apparently great enthusiasm for Assad.

These destitute Syrians used their vote to say what I said in March: If the Syrian people were given a choice between (real or desired) immediate security, peace and stability with Assad at the helm or a protracted conflict, continued suffering and an unknown future, even the most disenchanted Sunnis would probably go with Assad.

Growing up in Syria, each time we crossed the border into Lebanon, I wondered about the reasons for the differences in openness, vitality and prosperity between the two countries. Even then, I knew the answer lay in Syria’s authoritarian regime.

This vote, for what it’s worth, demonstrates that for the time being, [Assad] can claim some mantle of legitimacy. Therefore, the Syrian conflict and its possible resolution need to be framed differently and need to transcend Assad’s person.

Later, in 1986, on my first return to Syria from studies in the US, I saw, with horror, the consequences of unimaginable violence by a despotic state: The city of Hama, which lay on the road from the Damascus to Aleppo, my hometown, had been leveled by father Assad in response to the first Sunni challenge to the minority Alawite regime.

Like father, like son?

In 1999, as I was readying to meet Hafez al-Assad during an official visit to Damascus, I couldn’t help but think that I was about to meet a most brutal leader, yet someone who had brought stability and some progress to the Syrian people.

When son Assad came to power, given his education and background, like many others, I too pinned great hopes on him being the path to peaceful and democratic change in Syria – albeit a slow and incremental change. After some initial positive steps, Bashar al-Assad, too, fell into the same abyss.

Forty years of tight-fisted authoritarian rule by a small minority had left deep scars and, in 2011, the opportunity for a transition was seized in earnest. But had anyone imagined this situation three years on?

The Syrian people would have applauded a quick, no-cost (in human terms) Ben Ali sort of change; they would have supported the Mubarak type “low-cost” change of leadership; they would even have supported a brisk foreign intervention-induced Gaddafi type change of regime; but clearly they would not have wanted this kind of inhumane warfare and ruthless protracted suffering, regardless of the final goal.

Nor would the global and regional powers, who saw – and seized – a coincidence of interests in the goal of regime change in Syria, have wanted such a protracted conflict, with suffering on such a scale.

Three years after the first shots were fired in the remote town of Daraa near the Jordanian border, there is a change in the way the global and regional powers are assessing the situation.

To begin with, they had miscalculated the speed and ease with which the Assad regime would fall. The resolve of the regime and its supporters – Russia, Iran (together with Hezbollah) proved far more profound than the half-hearted Western support for the ill-defined strategies and goals of those advocating regime change.

Further, the penetration and proliferation of violent extremist organisations within Syria soon came to be viewed as more threatening to Western interests than the Assad regime.

US President Barack Obama in his West Point foreign policy speech clearly acknowledged this. Yet his policy prescription was more of the same.

“I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.”

Recipe for catastrophe

This is a recipe for continued catastrophe. Such support will simply continue to nourish the out-of-control extremist organisations on Syrian territory.

The Geneva talks were a folly. They were organised in haste, despite early announcements, and were clearly doomed to fail. The right people were not invited, nor were the right questions asked. Yet this failure shouldn’t impede new and bolder steps for the sake of the Syrian people and regional peace.

Every student of negotiations knows the story of the orange. Two sides argue over an orange and eventually they settle by cutting the orange in half. It turns out that one of them needed the orange for its juice, the other for its peel. Had the right questions been asked from the beginning and the issues framed accordingly, both sides would have doubled their gain.

Assad can neither be cut in half, nor squeezed nor grated. Everyone’s tried. Negotiating over whether Assad stays or goes, as the Geneva talks have shown, will lead nowhere. This vote, for what it’s worth, demonstrates that for the time being, he can claim some mantle of legitimacy. Therefore, the Syrian conflict and its possible resolution need to be framed differently and need to transcend Assad’s person.

The agenda should be broad and comprehensive. It should be about constitutional reforms, democracy, institutions, voting rights, human rights, basic freedoms and regional cooperation and stability. It should be about limiting the term and the powers of the president, about power sharing, about equitable minority involvement and about preventing vengeful score-settling.

Democracy is about representation, and that should cover the full mosaic of Syria’s people. Every group with an interest in the country’s future – including the government, domestic opposition groups, and those in exile – should be invited to participate in these official talks. But each of these actors needs to demonstrate that their interests lie in a  sovereign, unified, democratic and pluralist Syria – not in securing or avenging ethnic or sectoral power.

I believe it is time that the UN organises a summit around a well thought-through plan based on the fast changing global and regional dynamics and the facts and realities on the ground, including the enormous destruction in the country, the unbearable suffering of the Syrian population, and the impending threat of expanded global terrorism and regional instability.

There are 10 countries that have something to do with what’s happening in Syria. The US, Russia, Europe are the three superpowers, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the major regional powers and Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are the neighbouring countries with immediate impact and input. None of these countries alone – or even in alliance with their like-minded partners – can make or break the Syrian conflict. But together, they can stop the bloodshed.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.