After a decade long civil war, the Syrian state is on the verge of collapse. The situation is so dire that former adversaries are now actively attempting to stabilize the country, supported by Russia. Meanwhile, the presidential election scheduled for May 26 has already been decided.
Syrians will have the opportunity to vote for a new president – at least on paper. Incumbent Bashar al-Assad – who has been in office since 2010 (with his family ruling Syria for 44 years)– will run for office again. Despite the chaos in the country, Assad’s victory is a virtual certainty.
Although Syria’s elections are in theory free, as opposing candidates have been allowed since 2012, potential candidates have to overcome multiple encumbrances that are rather selective and in favor of the sitting president.
Although Syria’s elections are in theory free, potential candidates have to overcome multiple encumbrances that are rather selective and in favor of the sitting president.
For one, the candidacy of opponents is excluded unless applicants have lived in Syria without interruption for the past ten years. Something that, for logical reasons, is a rarity for opposition members.
Moreover, candidates must take the hurdle of obtaining 35 declarations of support from members of parliament. The election itself will be held in government-controlled areas only. It excludes millions of Syrians who live in areas in the north of the country – which Turkey occupies and is controlled by Kurdish militias; Idlib, controlled by radical Islamist militias; or those who are displaced elsewhere.
The current list of candidates contains names that are hardly known, even in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s re-election for another seven-year term is hence likely to yield a similar result as in 2014, when he obtained 88.7 percent of the vote.
The Suffering in Syria Continues
Ultimately, Assad’s looming victory will not change the country’s predicament. Syria is on the brink of economic collapse, and the frustration amongst the population is growing. Food is scarce, and the country is lacking electricity. The price of staple foods in Syria has more than doubled in the past 12 months, primarily due to inflation.
According to the United Nations, 13.4 million Syrians require humanitarian aid and 12.4 million are threatened with starvation – 4.5 million more compared to 2020. And the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the economic and humanitarian picture.
The regime in Syria has repeatedly blamed Western sanctions for the crisis, but ongoing corruption in the country tells another story.
Along with the domestic factors, Lebanon’s economic debacle has added on to Syria’s problems. Syria was hit hard by the collapse of its neighbor’s banking system, into which many wealthy Syrians had allocated their foreign currencies.
On April 13, Assad relieved the head of the Syrian Central Bank, Hazem Karfoul, of his duty. Karfoul had previously capped the maximum amount for withdrawals to the equivalent of about US$570, thereby stalling the economy even further.
Immediately afterwards, on April 15, the Central Bank devalued its currency by half. Officially, the dollar now costs 2,512 Syrian pounds. The government hopes that this will result in more Syrians sending foreign currency home and stabilizing the exchange rate.
Russia and the Arab League Could Provide Assistance
In addition to the economic problems, Syria remains a war zone. The United Nations speaks of a volatile and unpredictable security situation in parts of the country.
The chaos has recently inspired more regional political efforts to help Syria. Former opponents of Assad, who previously supported rebels, fear a collapse of the state and a vacuum could occur after an overthrow of Assad. Russia is increasingly attempting to get Arab leaders to accept Assad at least as a transitional figure and to re-admit Syria, whose membership was revoked in 2011, to the Arab League.
However, to make Russia’s efforts viable, Assad would have to make concessions, particularly regarding the 2015 UN Resolution 2254, which calls for a ceasefire and a political settlement in Syria. It also includes the demand for free and fair elections in which all Syrians can participate. In 2019, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, presented a new five-point roadmap for peace. Geir hopes for Russia to put pressure on Assad to accept the roadmap.
For Arab powers, a collapse of the Syrian state is a worst-case scenario, as it would cement a stable presence of the current foreign actors in the country.
This is where the Arab nations come into play. An amicable solution in Syria would allow them to roll back the expanding Iranian and Turkish influence in the region. For Arab powers, a collapse of the Syrian state is a worst-case scenario, as it would cement a stable presence of the current foreign actors in the country.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the Gulf States and Egypt in March to forge Russian-Arab cooperation on Syria. A Russian-Qatari-Turkish meeting on Syria was also conducted in Doha, resulting in a joint statement that calls for a political solution.
While Saudi Arabia and Qatar still seem hesitant, the loudest proponent of normalizing ties with Syria is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and praised Russia’s fight against Islamist rebels and the Islamic State as a “fight against a common enemy.”
Egypt and Algeria are also in favor of normalization with Syria. Egypt’s President Abdelfattah al-Sisi is now part of a three-way format with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi focused on economic cooperation, which has entailed discussions on the Syrian conflict as well.
Europe and the US Will Not Step In
To minimize Iran’s influence decisively, the Arab states would need to provide economic and financial aid to Syria. This kind of support is being made difficult by the Caesar Act, a package of US sanctions against Syria, and most importantly, by third-party actors who engage in activities that bolster the regime’s power.
President Joe Biden is unlikely to overturn these sanctions which his predecessor imposed, making a fundamental improvement of the country’s quagmire difficult.
The US and the European Union have made it a condition that political change needs to occur before they are inclined to provide financial aid to reconstruct the country.
The US and the European Union have been at the forefront of demanding a political solution to the Syrian conflict along the lines of the aforementioned UN Resolution. Both have made it a condition that political change needs to occur before they are inclined to provide financial aid to reconstruct the country.
Assad, however, has undermined all attempts so far. The upcoming election is the latest testament of this. It’s an election that will not provide him with any legitimacy in the West, as the US and the EU have already emphasized that they will not recognize the result.
The West’s view notwithstanding, the election should further cement the balance of power for Assad while also, sadly, prolonging the population’s suffering.
That Russia, of all nations, is now considered the potential facilitator of peace is emblematic of how disastrous the situation in Syria has become.