The Biggest Losers
Meet the two hapless candidates running in Syria’s stage-managed farce of an election to confirm president-for-life Bashar al-Assad.
BEIRUT — It’s campaign season in Damascus, and the streets are festooned with posters of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president is shown in a suit, smiling and waving; in another poster, he appears in a military uniform wearing aviator sunglasses, staring off into the distance. He is even portrayed as a chess grandmaster: In one campaign ad, the scene opens with the United States, Israel, France, and the Arab countries of the Gulf playing one side of a chessboard, arrayed against Syria on the other. While the anti-Assad coalition sets up its chess pieces normally, the Syrian side is made up exclusively of multicolored pawns.
When Assad’s enemies move a piece, the video cuts to a recent spasm of violence in the Arab world: the 2003 "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq, the 2006 war in Lebanon, and the 2008 Gaza war. But the Assad side fights back, taking a knight here, a rook there. As dramatic music plays in the background, the game starts to become intense: The Israeli player slams his hand down in frustration at a Syrian move, and the French player loosens his tie.
Finally, the anti-Assad side plays what it believes to be its winning move — what the video calls the "2011 war on Syria." The Israeli and Arab Gulf chess players share an awkward high-five. Pieces start flying off the board, and the Israeli player, chuckling, moves his side’s queen. Children’s screams are heard in the background.
But then something changes. The Syrian side huddles, stacking their hands on top of one another — they are finally going to work together. The camera pans down to show that this is no ordinary chessboard: The anti-Assad forces are confronted by dozens of rows of Syrian pawns, some of them painted in military camouflage, interspersed with squares occupied by the Syrian flag. "Strongest Together," the Assad campaign ad intones.
The Syrian presidential election will be held on June 3, and it will end with Assad’s re-election. The United States and its allies have already denounced the vote as a farce. For the Syrian regime, however, it represents an opportunity to showcase its expanding control over several of the country’s urban centers, and to highlight its persistent support among segments of the population. The vote will only be held in regime-controlled areas, and the Syrian military has pushed hard over the past months to capture new territory and sign local truces with rebel groups ahead of the ballot. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham blocked citizens from leaving the city of Raqqa in order to prevent them from voting.
Across the border, tens of thousands of Syrians flocked last week to the Syrian Embassy in Lebanon, to cast absentee ballots in the election. The process showed a casual disregard for the rules of a fair vote: Volunteers shoved ballots into the hands of anyone who approached, and voters regularly cast multiple votes. However, that fact did nothing to dampen the Syrian regime’s sense of triumph.
"Syrians in Lebanon vote overwhelmingly for the will of the nation and the war on terror," crowed the headline in Syria’s state-owned newspaper Tishreen. The voters "turn[ed] the electoral process into a national wedding," reported the Syrian Baathist newspaper al-Thawra.
Many of the Syrians who voted seemed to be genuine supporters of Assad. Others appeared to have been motivated by widespread rumors that if they neglected to vote, they would not be allowed back into Syria. But whether enthusiastic or coerced, voters at the Syrian Embassy outside Beirut all had one thing in common: They ticked the box under the picture for Dr. Bashar Hafez al-Assad, and ignored the images of the two largely anonymous candidates next to him.
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The two candidates challenging Assad, businessman Hassan al-Nouri and communist MP Maher Hajjar, have zero chance of being elected president. But as the first candidates allowed to run against an Assad in the family’s four-decade rule, their positions shed light on the issues the regime considers open for debate — and those on which it will brook no dissent.
In interviews with Foreign Policy, conducted by a journalist within Syria, both candidates expressed their full support for Assad’s effort to crush the insurgency against his rule, describing the armed opposition to the regime as primarily made up of Islamist extremists and foreign jihadists. But they also leveled sometimes frank criticism at Assad himself for what they characterized as his mismanagement of the economy and centralization of power within a small clique of supporters.
Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri is a former parliamentarian and minister for administrative development. He currently heads the regime-tolerated National Initiative for Administration and Change in Syria, and also heads a business school in Syria. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said that regime figures had approached him to ask if he was willing to run, but denied they had offered him political incentives — as a successful businessman, he said, "ten ministers would not be able to reach my salary." His campaign stands for economic liberalization, and his billboards boast the less-than-inspiring slogan "Upgrading Economic Legislation."
His biography published in Syrian state media and subsequent media reports says that he received a Ph.D. in general management from John F. Kennedy University, which is located in California. However, the university told FP that it has no record of his enrollment and does not offer Ph.D. programs. A website for the International School of Business Management, where Nouri sits on an advisory board, contains a biography for the former minister that provides an image of his diploma, which states that he attended Kennedy-Western University. This unaccredited, Wyoming-based university was the focus of a 2004 federal investigation that it was a "diploma mill" doling out degrees for minimal work, and was forced to close its doors in 2009.
"The age of the sole ruler has come to an end," Nouri told FP. Assad’s rule has resulted in the emergence of a "100 family economy" that controls the preponderance of the country’s wealth, he said, while the middle class has collapsed.
Nouri framed his efforts to combat corruption and improve the country’s economy as a strategy for strengthening Syria’s struggle against both the United States and Israel. "The U.S. administration knows f
ull well that there is no way to breach Syria militarily," he said. "The United States can only breach Syria socially, because of its scientific supremacy" — which, he noted, Damascus can circumvent through internal reform and deeper cooperation with Russia.
When it comes to political reform and the regime’s ongoing crackdown on its domestic enemies, however, Nouri had nothing but praise for Assad. He heralded the country’s new "modern and balanced" constitution as opening the door for political pluralism in the country, and said that the coming election would be "honest and democratic, in the Syrian way."
He slammed both the United States and the Syrian opposition as being on the verge of suffering a humiliating defeat. He accused Ahmad Jarba, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, of stealing more than $75 million from the opposition’s coffers. "The coalition is done for now that corruption has seeped into it, and I am optimistic in achieving victory soon," he said.
Maher Hajjar, the other regime-sanctioned opposition candidate, stands for the precisely opposite economic vision of Nouri — and his rhetoric about combating the United States and Israel is perhaps even more strident than Assad’s. Hajjar is a representative of Syria’s fractious far-left movements: He joined the Syrian Communist Party in 1984, and later left it in 2000 to become part of the communist leadership in Aleppo. He then formed the Popular Will Party, and won a seat in parliament in the 2012 election on its electoral list. However, following the announcement of his presidential candidacy, the party contended that he was no longer a member. Meanwhile, the Syrian Communist Party — led by longtime regime loyalists from the Bakdash family — declared that it would support Assad in the presidential election.
In his interview with FP, Hajjar attacked American policies across the globe, arguing that aggression was baked into the U.S. political system. As he put it, Washington is "breathing through an iron lung structured by war and murder, in cooperation with international Zionism."
Hajjar was even more hawkish when it came to the Arab countries of the Gulf, which have been key players in arming and funding the Syrian rebels. He said that if he becomes president, he would sever relations with these "regressive" states, and extend the Arab Spring by working to overthrow their leaders. "I will support liberation movements to topple Gulf regimes," he said. "The Arab liberation movement erred when it reconciled with those regimes instead of being their opponents."
Like Nouri, Hajjar is a critic of Assad’s management of the Syrian economy. He accused the current government of haphazard policies, "improvis[ing] solutions for partial and daily problems" without an underlying strategy. Unlike Nouri, however, his solution is increased state control: He called for an economic policy focused on "social justice," which would redistribute a large share of corporate profits to the workers.
Hajjar’s billboards, meanwhile, are aimed at the Syrians who have seen their livelihoods and their homes destroyed over the past three years of war. Vote for him, they say, "In order to live with dignity."
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Assad, meanwhile, has stayed above the disagreements of his opponents, launching a slick campaign revolving around the word sawa, colloquial Syrian Arabic for "together."
The campaign — which boasts Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts — portrays the Syrian president as an antidote to the chaos and instability that currently wrack Syria. The relentlessly optimistic message is that only Assad can return the country to security and prosperity.
The campaign’s recurring theme is that Syrians must come together to defeat their domestic and foreign enemies. The "Strongest Together" ad, where the pro-Assad chess team unites to defeat the anti-Assad coalition in the game of global politics, is just one example. In another campaign ad, titled "Together Against Terrorism," Syrians work together to knock down a graffitied wall and let daylight back into their homes. A third, called "Together We Rebuild the Country," shows hard-hatted workers collaborating to rebuild a wrecked neighborhood, then gazing up at the Syrian flag.
The campaign also touts Assad as the leader who can reverse the economic hardships Syrians have faced over the past three years of turmoil. In a tacit acknowledgement of the triple-digit inflation in the country, which has eaten into families’ savings and put all but the most basic staples out of reach, the campaign tweeted an image of a Syrian coin sprouting in a pile of dirt, along with wheat and cotton. "Together the lira strengthens," the image says.
There is no doubt that Assad will win the election tomorrow by a massive margin. Whether he will convince Syrians to place their faith in the rules of official Syrian politics — a chessboard on which Assad is invincible — is another matter entirely. While the Syrian president’s polished campaign is more than enough to defeat his two rivals, it at times slips into the sort of tone-deafness that led Syrians to revolt in the first place.
Speaking in the name of a candidate who inherited the Syrian presidency from his father and has relied on his family members to serve as the backbone of his regime ever since, his campaign tweeted: "Favoritism is one of the main causes of corruption."