Meanwhile, in interviews with the Western, Russian, and Arab press, Assad and regime spokespersons have announced that he will run in the upcoming presidential poll and that international election observers will not be allowed into the country. The rules stipulate that each candidate file an application with the Supreme Constitutional Court, an all-Assad-appointed body that will reach a verdict on each application within five days. It is unclear what the final arrangements will be and who will run—six other candidates have announced their candidacy. But what is certain is that Syria’s election law forbids candidates who have not resided in Syria for the last 10 years, which eliminates many of the exiled opposition active in the Syrian National Coalition.
Assad says he will only deal with parties that have a “national agenda” in upcoming local and parliamentary elections, which essentially rules out not only the SNC, but also other armed groups that control large swaths of opposition-held Syria. The opposition acceptable to Assad encompasses groups in regime-controlled areas that have been tolerated for years, including the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCC). The NCC is headed by the elderly pan-Arab socialist Hassan Abdel Azim, who has little to no influence on the opposition outside Assad-controlled areas.
It is here where Assad’s logic collides with the hard realities of Syrian demographics. Following the Assad regime’s last attempt to shoot its way out of an uprising by its Sunni majority, which culminated in the Hama Massacre of 1982, in which up to 30,000 Syrians died, Assad’s father launched a massive, decade-long crackdown in Syria that decimated the economy and confined people to their homes. Predictably, birthrates skyrocketed. In the decade following the Hama Massacre, Syria was among the 20 fastest-growing populations on the planet, particularly in Sunni-dominated rural areas (this accounts for the lack of gray hair among today's opposition fighters). This time around, there are many more Sunnis than Alawites, who had fewer children. If Assad only offers a bankrupt plan for reforms based on his “reelection” as a transition, along with promises of economic largesse that he can ill afford, there is little chance his regime will be able to shoot the Sunni opposition into submission to a degree that would stabilize and reunite the country.
The bad news for the fragmented Syrian opposition is that the loose language negotiated by Russia in the Geneva Communique of 2012 concerning the formation of a “Transitional Governing Body” by “mutual consent” could in practice mean that opposition forces who succumb to Assad ultimately form the basis of the TGB. And given the Obama administration’s aversion to supporting the Syrian opposition with lethal assistance or direct military intervention, as well as its current outreach to the Assad regime’s chief supporters in Tehran, the White House might be tempted to take the bait and agree to such a political transition. As might European governments concerned about the growth of jihadists among the Sunni opposition.
That would be a big mistake. Handing Assad and Iran’s foreign legion even a partial victory in Syria right now would make it more difficult to contain Tehran’s regional machinations and secure further concessions over its nuclear program. But more importantly, it would likely stoke a regional, sectarian proxy war centered on Syria. Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, are deeply worried about Iran’s spreading influence and nuclear ambitions, and appear committed to fighting Iran’s legion to the last dead Syrian. These motivations have spurred some of their citizens to sponsor effective al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria with global aspirations.
The most effective and least costly way to contain Assad’s advance, as well as the influence of jihadists, is through greater lethal support for the moderate opposition—an option the White House has been debating for years and is reportedly debating now in light of the bravado that the Syrian and Russian presidents have been demonstrating recently. As the Assad regime has accelerated shipments of chemical weapons to the Syrian coast, American-made TOW anti-tank missiles have increasingly made their way to moderate Syrian opposition fighters vetted by Western intelligence. But the only way to stop the Assad regime’s aerial bombardment of opposition areas and bring the government to the negotiating table is by providing anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition or launching missile strikes on the regime’s airfields. In recent days, however, Obama has sharply rebuked critics of his Syria policy who are now calling for a military response to Assad’s worsening behavior.
While Obama’s equation of “Syria is Iraq” has worked with the American public so far, Assad’s forced solution has global implications that run directly counter to American values and interests. Permitting the Syrian president to implement his strategy would demonstrate to ruthless dictators around the world that mass slaughter and blocked humanitarian access are effective tactics. And, at a time when Washington and its European allies are contending with a resurgent Russia, U.S. adversaries eager to challenge international law will conclude that the West is weak, does not uphold its principles, and can be effectively ignored.