Syria's presidential election might be a farce -- but that doesn't mean it isn't dangerous.
- By Steven HeydemannSteven Heydemann is vice president of the Center for Applied Research on Conflict at the U.S. Institute of Peace, with expertise in the comparative politics and the political economy of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syria. His views are his own, and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not take positions on matters of public policy.
Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace are co-hosting the second PeaceGame on June 18-19 in Abu Dhabi. This article provides background for some of the issues to be discussed at that event.
On June 3, in a parody of democracy, Bashar al-Assad will be reelected as president of Syria for his third seven-year term. If he serves out this term, Assad will be eligible to run for a fourth term in 2021 that would extend his presidency to 28 years — two years short of his father’s tenure. Syrians may yet be spared almost six decades of direct Assad family rule, but the outcome of Tuesday’s vote is a foregone conclusion.
Tuesday’s election is easy to ridicule, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a meaningless charade. Assad’s victory will further weaken international leverage over his regime, will be used by his authoritarian allies to sustain their support — including in the U.N. Security Council — and will diminish prospects for a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict.
The United States, the U.N., and the more than 100 governments that constitute the Friends of Syria Group (FOS), an alliance of governments opposed to Assad’s continued rule, should take steps to thwart the Assad regime’s efforts to exploit this phony election, enhance its legitimacy, and validate its self-serving claims to a military victory over the Syrian opposition. A preemptive move by the U.N. General Assembly, in the form of a resolution denouncing the election, rejecting the outcome as illegitimate, and insisting on a negotiated settlement of the conflict under the terms of the U.N. Geneva Protocol of June 2012, would be a small but important step in this direction.
Still, there are far more meaningful measures that can, and should, be taken. The United States and other FOS governments, which include Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Britain, can implement policies to strip the Assad regime of its legal and political legitimacy, transferring elements of sovereignty, including control over embassies, to recognized bodies of the Syrian opposition. On May 12, France closed the Syrian embassy in Paris to protest the June 3 election. Germany and Belgium have denied permission for Syrian embassies to hold expatriate voting. These are useful short-term steps, but longer-term measures to challenge the legitimacy of the regime are needed. In playing the sovereignty card, the United States and other FOS governments will not only make their rejection of the Assad regime’s phony election clear, but also gain leverage in their efforts to move the Syrian conflict toward a negotiated settlement.
Syria’s conflict has left 160,000 dead and more than nine million displaced. It has wreaked havoc on the country’s civilian population, decimated its economy, frayed its territorial integrity, and fueled sectarian spillover that threatens the stability of neighboring states. That an election is taking place at all in the midst of such conditions underscores the determination of the Assad regime to assert its standing as the sovereign authority in Syria, the outsized importance it attaches in doing so to the kind of hollow, ritualistic displays of legalism and political participation this election represents, and the ease with which autocrats can appropriate and distort the vocabulary and form of democratic politics.
The regime and its supporters have pitched the upcoming election as a major step forward in Syria’s democratic development. The June 3 vote has been organized according to electoral regulations approved in a February 2012 referendum to amend the Syrian constitution. Under the revised electoral law, Syria’s president will be chosen in a multi-candidate election for the first time since the Ba’ath Party seized power in March 1963. For the past 40 years, Syrian presidents were not so much elected as affirmed through national plebiscites in which the sole candidate was routinely supported by upwards of 98 percent of participants, giving rise to any number dark jokes concerning the fate of the 1-2 percent of dissenters.
The Assad regime has billed the 2014 election as the first in which the incumbent will face competition. The Syrian, Iranian, pro-Hezbollah, and even Russian media are covering the election "race" with great fanfare. However, the fine print of the new election laws ensure that the playing field is anything but level. Candidates must be approved by 35 members of the regime’s tame Parliament and by the Supreme Constitutional Court, and cannot have been convicted of a "dishonorable felony," a category that includes most political acts criminalized by the regime. Candidates must also have been resident in Syria continuously for the past 10 years — a condition that renders most credible opposition leaders ineligible to run.
It is not procedures alone that ensure Assad’s victory. In Syria’s authoritarian system, the notion of a credible challenge to Bashar al-Assad is utterly implausible. The scale of destruction and displacement Syria has experienced over the past three years make risible the regime’s attempts to exploit the election as a source of popular legitimacy that validate its sovereignty and authority. But none of this has interfered with the regime’s efforts to cast the election as an exercise in democracy. Official Syrian media earnestly covers the campaigns of Assad’s competitors, two political unknowns who dutifully play the roles the regime has assigned them. The regime has even invited election monitors from friendly governments, including Russia, China, and Iran to observe the voting: Iran promptly agreed to dispatch a delegation of parliamentarians. After the vote, Russia, China, Iran, and other authoritarian allies of the Assad regime will no doubt endorse the results.
Still, as tempting as it might be, it would be a mistake to dismiss the election as a farce — it has already caused real harm. It has accelerated the resignation of U.N. special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who said on March 14 that "holding elections [in Syria] would doom prospects for future talks by negating the need for an interim government." Without a swift and compelling response from the United States and other lead FOS governments, the election will continue to muddle the international case against Assad. Election results will be hauled out at every opportunity to justify regime intransigence, continue to stymie the efforts of the U.N. Security Council to act on issues such as the regime’s obstruction of humanitarian assistance, and undermine possibilities for a negotiated settlement based on the internationally-agreed Geneva Protocol of June 2012.
Even as President Obama expands military support for the Syrian opposition, the United States should work with its allies to develop a coherent and compelling diplomatic response to the upcoming election. The most effective strategy available to the administration is to play the sovereignty card: Accelerating the transfer of sovereignty from the Assad regime to its opponents is a powerful tool that the Obama administration has been reluctant to use, but should now add to its Syria repertoire. It not only constitutes an appropriate response to the Assad regime’s electoral gambit, but will give the administration significant political a
nd diplomatic leverage and improve prospects for a negotiated settlement. Calculated measures that affirm the illegitimacy of the Assad regime and its principal responsibility for Syria’s descent into brutal civil war constitute an explicit rejoinder to those who have abused sovereignty claims, including Russia and China, to insulate the regime from international pressure and reduce its incentives to take negotiations seriously.
Transferring elements of sovereignty to the opposition, including control over embassies and related governmental functions such as renewing passports — a critical issue for tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled regime repression and are denied citizen services by regime-held embassies — would also, generate a range of diplomatic and political opportunities for the Obama administration and other leading FOS governments. Such steps would provide legal underpinnings for the view of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that the U.N. does not require any additional authority from the Security Council to distribute humanitarian aid without the Assad regime’s approval. They would provide the legitimacy needed by the opposition Interim Government to become a meaningful presence in the large areas of Syria that are out of regime control — and likely to remain so for some time — but lack effective governance. It would empower international and regional organizations to deal directly with the opposition as a semi-sovereign entity. And it would greatly increase the regime’s incentives to negotiate, while establishing a more level playing field for any future negotiations between the regime and the opposition.
The United States and its partners have an opportunity to use Assad’s electoral farce to strengthen their hand, secure leverage over the regime and its allies, and advance the goal of an end to the violence that has torn Syria apart. To seize this opportunity, the Obama administration has to take its own rhetoric seriously, back up its often-professed view that the Assad regime is illegitimate, and begin the incremental transfer of sovereignty to the recognized bodies of the Syrian opposition. The election is an opportunity for the Assad regime to argue for its legitimacy on the world stage — and for the world to reject that claim. The United States and its allies who oppose Assad’s brutal rule should not let this opportunity go to waste.