Assad's Reelection Campaign Matters—Really

The Syrian president wants to impose a solution to the country's crisis—on his terms.
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A campaign poster in Damascus for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reads in Arabic, "We want Assad." (Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri)

The United States and the international community have spent the better part of the last year backing peace talks in Geneva to bring about a “political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” and ultimately end the war between the Alawite-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni and Kurdish-dominated opposition. But Assad has his own transition in mind: running for a third seven-year term as president. On April 28, the Syrian president nominated himself as a candidate in Syria’s June 3 presidential poll, “hoping the parliament would endorse it.”

This was hardly a surprise. Assad has hinted at his candidacy for months, and “spontaneous rallies” calling for him to run—many complete with images of Assad beside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah—have sprung up across regime-controlled areas of the country, while shopkeepers have been encouraged to paint their storefronts with Syrian flags and slogans supporting the leader.

What’s Assad’s concession to his opponents after attempting to shoot his way out of the country’s largest uprising, with 150,000-plus killed, 680,000 injured, and up to half of the country’s 23 million people displaced? The Syrian president has made the next poll the first contested presidential election in the nation’s modern history. That pledge, however, is undermined by the state of war in the country and Assad’s previous referendums, including the last presidential election I observed personally in 2007, when he won by a Crimea-like 97.62 percent of the vote. In one polling station in Damascus’s wealthiest and most Westernized neighborhood, a young woman-turned-poll worker not only urged me to vote even though I did not have Syrian nationality, but also encouraged me to follow the lead of Assad’s main election poster and vote with a fingerprint in my own blood. Such tactics helped Assad improve upon his 97.24-percent showing in 2000, when his father Hafez died, and the Syrian parliament lowered the minimum age for seeking the Syrian presidency from 40 to 34 to allow Bashar to run.

Why, then, should anyone care about another rigged election in the Middle East? Because Assad’s reelection is actually part of his larger strategy to destroy the international community-backed plan for a negotiated solution to the increasingly sectarian Syrian crisis in favor of a forced solution on his terms. This solution includes sieges and starvation of opposition-controlled areas, the manipulation of aid supplies, and the dropping of “barrel bombs,” Scud missiles, and alleged chlorine gas canisters on his enemies. While this approach has helped him gain ground in western Syria with help from a legion of Hezbollah, Iraqi, and other Iranian-backed Shiite fighters, Assad lacks the troops to retake and hold all of Syria, unless his allies expand their involvement to a much more costly degree. Short of Syria’s occupation by what is often described as “Iran’s foreign legion,” the opposition and their regional backers will not agree to a Potemkin transition with Assad and his Iranian allies calling the shots.

The likely outcome of all this is a failed state partitioned into regime, Sunni-Arab, and Kurdish areas, all of which are now havens for U.S.-designated terrorist organizations in the heart of the Middle East. Combined with regional tensions between Iran and the Arabs, as well as the deep chill in relations between Russia and the United States, diplomatic solutions seem distant as well. This presents Barack Obama with a dilemma that has far-reaching implications. Allowing Assad’s forced solution to go forward will only contribute to the spread of a Syria-centered Middle Eastern proxy war between Iran and Arab countries, demonstrate to dictators that mass slaughter works, and show Moscow and other U.S. adversaries that Washington is unwilling to follow through on its foreign-policy principles and diplomatic agreements. But reversing Assad’s course will require the kind of military action from the West and its regional allies that Obama has been extremely reluctant to use due to its expense and uncertain result for the United States. 

***

In early 2012, as the armed insurgency in Syria gathered steam, the Assad regime’s changes to the constitution to establish contested presidential elections attracted little attention in the West, which at the time was focused on Kofi Annan’s five-point plan to end the crisis. When that effort failed, the United States and Russia negotiated the “Geneva Communique of 2012.” At the time, the regime’s contraction, if not its demise, seemed certain, so Western negotiators watered down the text’s language over Assad’s fate to overcome a Russian veto at the United Nations. Instead of demanding Assad “step aside” as part of a transition, the United States agreed to a “Transitional Governing Body” with “full executive powers” to be formed by “mutual consent” that “could include members of the current government and the opposition and other groups.” American negotiators held up the “mutual consent” clause at the time as giving the opposition a veto over Assad’s participation in the TGB. But by not ruling Assad out of the scheme, as well as failing to define which opposition groups had to agree to the TGB, the agreement gave Russia a veto over the process and allowed Assad to play for time.

A Free Syrian Army fighter in the old city of Aleppo. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)

And he did just that. Last year, with the backing of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, Assad launched a counterinsurgency effort that—combined with the use of chemical weapons, Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his “red line” on their use in Syria, and the regime’s foot-dragging on its deal with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Security Council Resolution 2118—decimated the opposition. As a seeming concession to the Russians for getting the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons, the United States helped deliver selective representatives from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an opposition umbrella organization backed by the West, to negotiations in Geneva with the Assad regime in January and February. But the Syrian regime refused to negotiate a Transitional Governing Body, and went so far as to place opposition negotiators on a list of terrorists. At the same time, Assad increased bombardment of opposition areas with barrel bombs—crude explosive devices dropped from regime helicopters. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power “the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict” occurred during the talks in Geneva. Russia, which in Security Council Resolution 2118 had effectively pledged to involve the regime in discussions on the TGB, is now suddenly unwilling to do so.

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Presented by

Andrew Tabler

Andrew J. Tabler is senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

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