Perhaps the least surprising news for the week is the result of the Syrian presidential election, held on Wednesday. Incumbent president Bashar al-Assad was declared the winner last night with a claimed 95.1% of the vote, with a turnout that was alleged to be 78.7%.
The Syrian civil war is now approaching (or perhaps has already passed, depending on exactly when you count from) the ten-year mark. Fighting has been mostly at a fairly low level for the last year or two, reflecting the fact that Assad’s forces have succeeded in regaining control of the greater part of the country. So with the end of his current seven-year term coming up, Assad evidently felt this was a good time for an election.
That is contrary to the wishes of most of the opposition and the international community, who have repeatedly called for elections to follow a general peace settlement. But Assad is less worried about world opinion than ever and clearly has no intention of submitting himself to any genuinely democratic process.
Two opponents, or “opponents”, were recruited to run against the president: Abdullah Salloum Abdullah, whose Socialist Unionist Party does not even pretend to oppose the government, and Mahmoud Ahmed Mari, who has some opposition credentials but is clearly loyal to Assad’s system. They were credited with 1.5% and 3.3% respectively. Another 48 people apparently had their nominations rejected.
In reality, of course, the results are meaningless – not just in the sense that the election as a whole is a farce, but more specifically in that the numbers last time were clearly doctored, and there’s no reason to think things have improved. The one believable aspect is the fact that in the circumstances, no more than a handful of Syrians would take the risk of casting a vote against Assad.
There has never been a democratic election in Syria. Although his tenure has been ratified in form by popular vote, Assad got the job by hereditary succession and has maintained himself in office (sometimes precariously) by armed force. More recently, his survival has been the gift of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which sees Syria as a useful ally and has inherited some of the Soviet paranoia about political Islam.
That is not to deny that Assad has a genuine base of support and that, before things fell to pieces in 2011, his regime had some real achievements to point to: provided one steered clear of political dissent, Syria was a safer and more stable place than many of its neighbors. No doubt, with the clarity of hindsight, many would be happy to return to that. Perhaps Assad, still only 55, hopes that if he can exhaust his enemies he may still have pleasant years of dictatorship ahead of him.
You can read some of my previous thoughts on Syria here and here. Since then, the advent of Donald Trump raised brief hopes that Russian-American co-operation might impose a settlement, but they were disappointed. Putin simply took Trump’s hostility to democracy as a cue to double down on support for Assad, with neither side willing to make a constructive move. Peace talks of a sort have been held in Geneva and Kazakhstan (see Wikipedia’s gloriously complicated summary) with no tangible result.
The way forward is as clear as it has ever been: a general ceasefire without preconditions, followed by a transitional administration and internationally supervised elections. But that goal is as remote as ever, and this week’s exercise has not brought it any closer.