Syria’s elections were never about substance or democracy. Rather, it was a show of force by Asaad’s regime, which appears united and optimistic about its chances of becoming regionally relevant again—even to those powers that once wanted to see it fall.
Syria’s Parliament Speaker in Damascus, Hammoud Sabbagh, announced on May 27 that President Bashar Al-Assad had won a landslide “victory” of 95.1 percent. Despite international concerns over the election’s legitimacy, Sabbagh proclaimed that election turnout was 78.66 percent.
As expected, Assad’s allies were swift to recognize the elections results. Russia hailed Assad’s “decisive” victory. Iran-ally Hezbollah in Lebanon delivered their congratulations stating that the results “offered an opportunity for Syria to return to its natural leading role in the region.” Iran-ally in Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, sent his congratulations in a tweet in which he welcomed “the dawn of a new democratic approach” after “years of conflict.”
The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy had already denounced the elections the day before the result as being “neither free nor fair.” However, this did not deter Damascus from going ahead with pictures of Assad splattered across the areas under his control, and large crowds taking to the streets to “celebrate” his subsequent electoral “victory.”
Few will argue honestly that the elections were fair or that the result is an accurate reflection of how Syrians feel about Assad, who chose to plunge the country into war rather than give in to popular demands for a true democratic process. However, Assad’s intention was never to deliver an election of real substance. Instead, Assad and his allies sought to present a show of force that the regime has survived and remains the only body of relevance in any discussion over the future of Syria. The elections were intended to represent a “victorious” end to the civil war and present a new narrative of the country entering a chapter of reconstruction and reconciliation with Assad leading the process.
Assad took great pains to ensure he was filmed walking through areas that had become synonymous with the Syrian revolution.
Assad took great pains to ensure he was filmed walking through areas that had become synonymous with the Syrian revolution. Assad himself cast his vote in the town of Douma, which had held out for years as an anti-Assad stronghold and was the scene of the much-reported chemical attack by regime forces. Assad fully understood the symbolism of the town where he announced that “today we prove that the Syrian people are one.”
Assad also demonstrated his iron grip on the state after continuous reports over the past year of internal schisms, factional disputes, and suggestions of potential maneuverings against him by family members, disgruntled senior members of the regime, and Moscow. The smooth choreography of the elections, and the ease with which the regime was able to “vet” the other candidates, suggests that Assad is firmly in control and continues to enjoy the support of the relevant stakeholders.
The international community appears almost unanimous in its condemnation of the elections, and united in their assessment that it does not reflect in any manner the will of the Syrian people. Yet, there is no suggestion that there will be any practical changes to the current policies pursued by the international stakeholders already involved in the conflict.
Turkey has no appetite to commit to any real effort to see the regime in Damascus fall. Its aims are limited specifically to the security of its border and the preservation of its military gains in the northwest even as it continues to train a new “Syrian National Army.” The Russians and the Iranians are already wrestling over who should have the greater say in the political proceedings in Syria, as the latter begins to entrench itself in the south and the former begins to consider how to expand its interests in the Mediterranean.
For all the antagonism from the Biden administration, and the continued imposition of the Caesar sanctions, there is no indication that Syria is a priority for the US, as it appears to have resigned itself to the reality that there are no viable ways to oust the Assad regime. Instead, the US appears to be focused on exploring the viability of creating an “Iraq model,” in which the Kurds are granted autonomy and thereby act as US leverage on the politics in Damascus, in the same manner Iraqi Kurdistan acts as US leverage on Baghdad. Certainly, the US has given enough signs that it might be inclined to recognize Assad now that US ally Saudi Arabia has begun its own rapprochement process with Damascus — demonstrating that the kingdom is confident that such a detente will not hurt its relations with Washington.
The elections offer a political and diplomatic door for the powers antagonistic to Assad to reconcile by “recognizing” the results.
Thus, rather than harming Assad, the staged elections may well turn out to favor him. While the election results may not weave a favorable narrative for Assad as far as international public opinion is concerned, they do offer a political and diplomatic door for the powers antagonistic to Assad to reconcile by “recognizing” the results. Turkey is already recalibrating its relations with regional powers. It has gone to great lengths to secure reconciliation with Egypt and has even ordered the Egyptian opposition in Istanbul to cease criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As a gesture of sincerity and goodwill, Turkey has also offered drones to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen, as it seeks to mend ties. Therefore, it would be no surprise if Ankara is working on its own resolution process with Assad.
In this way, the Syrian elections can indeed serve to project a narrative of reconciliation and reconstruction. While public opinion will be slow to accept this, the international community is likely to be much swifter in doing so. It is worth remembering that Sisi’s “96 percent” electoral victories in Egypt have been “‘accepted” by the international community in the name of “stability” and for the sake of turning the page on the Arab Spring and subsequent military coup. Sisi is now seen as a “strategic” partner and “ally” on regional issues including Libya, Palestine, and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Has Assad Won?
This does not necessarily mean Assad is “winning” or has “won.” Despite his survival and the absence of any potent movement that might actually be able to topple his regime, Assad is nevertheless facing a less than ideal reality. As it stands, he has very little chance of restoring his authority in Idlib and the northwest where Turkey has firmly entrenched itself with popular support, and Turkish companies have begun the reconstruction process. As far as Assad is concerned, Idlib and the surrounding areas will not be returned to him anytime soon, and may well never be returned.
Moreover, while Assad may believe he has out-foxed Washington, he will still be acutely aware that he has no leverage of power to restore his authority over large swathes of the northeast where Kurdish armed groups continue to expand their territory. While Assad will be relieved that a split in the name of Kurdish independence is unlikely, he will be very much aware that his best-case scenario will be to restore nominal control by agreeing to Kurdish autonomy. Legally, he would be the leader of these territories. However, in de facto terms, he will know full well that he has lost those territories with no chance in the short or medium term of restoring his power over them.
Assad knows that his survival has depended heavily on Russian air power and Iran-backed militias.
Lastly, Assad knows that his survival has depended heavily on Russian air power and Iran-backed militias. Without these, he lacks the capacity to resist the pockets of resistance that remain scattered across Syria. This means that he remains beholden to two powers that do not necessarily see eye-to-eye over the future of Syria. Tehran has already begun to send Shia clerics to alter the demographics of the southern provinces of Syria, as it seeks to create the sectarian haven that has allowed it to maintain an iron grip on the political proceedings in Baghdad. Russia has eyes on the Mediterranean and will expect Damascus to act as a proxy in Moscow’s wrestling with Europe, Turkey, and the US. Assad’s inability to assert agency over his two most important allies could therefore dampen any optimism he might have about his own political future.
Assad will now seek to accelerate the reconciliation processes with the Gulf states as he hopes that their influence over Washington might enable some reprieve from sanctions. The UAE has already indicated an appetite for financing Syria’s reconstruction and Abu Dhabi believes that it has the capacity to convince the US to change course in Assad’s favor. Assad will be cautiously hopeful about his chances of a reprieve from Biden as the US negotiates a deal with Assad-ally Iran in unfavorable circumstances, and as Biden’s wider foreign policy centers on pushing back Russia. On the latter, Assad will believe he can present himself as useful in leveraging US interests. Assad will also take note a how Erdogan has played Moscow and Washington off one another to expand Turkey’s interests at both the US and Russia’s expense.
While Assad recognizes his precarious situation, he is equally optimistic that new opportunities will present themselves, offering a future in which he becomes regionally relevant again—not just to his allies, but to those powers that once wanted to see him fall.