Syria before the Presidential Election: A Political Theater Inside and Out

Syria Elections
© Shutterstock - rogistok - Damascus, Syria - October 29, 2017. Bashar Hafez al-Assad President of Syria. Comic cartoon vintage pop art retro illustration

Dictator Bashar Al-Assad is having himself confirmed in office on May 26th in order to show strength and secure international aid. Our Syria expert Kristof Kleemann from Beirut explains why the international community should not get involved.

In the beginning, there was a record: Fifty-one Syrians had originally announced their candidacy against the incumbent Bashar Al-Assad for the election of the Syrian president on May 26th. However, the constitutional court then admitted only two of them: former State Minister Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and presumed Opposition Member Mahmoud Ahmed Marei. Both candidates are largely unknown to the Syrian population and even to experts, but even this form of political theater was not deemed necessary by the regime of the dictator who has been in office since 2000. Originally, they wanted to accept only one opposing candidate. Only pressure from the most important ally in Moscow led to another candidate entering the pre-decided race - in order to make the elections seem legitimate or at least somewhat more credible. Of course, it was clear that Mahmoud Ahmed Marei would not be a real opponent. He runs an NGO in Damascus that is approved and controlled by the regime.

With two new candidates, this year's presidential election follows the pattern of the last one seven years ago. The theatrical aspect of the process was evident in 2014, for example, when one of the opposing candidates presented his platform in front of a giant poster of Assad. What can be expected from the 2021 election can already be seen in the hurdles faced by Syrian voters: All Syrians who have fled and cannot show a valid Syrian exit stamp are excluded - an estimated 5.5 million. Another 6.6 million live in the Idlib region, in the Kurdish areas in the northeast or in parts of the state controlled by other powers. They, too, are not allowed to vote. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, also spoke out unequivocally against this "illegitimate" election in the Security Council a few days ago for this reason. The EU has also described the ballot as the "opposite of free and fair elections" from the outset.

In fact, Bashar Al-Assad could simply have himself confirmed by referendum, as his father Hafez did. But why is his regime now bothering to put on this political play? In principle, there are two reasons: internal and external pressure.

Ten years after the start of the civil war, Syria is in bad shape. Large parts of the country resemble a landscape of rubble. More than half of the population has been displaced, and the humanitarian situation is catastrophic even in areas under the regime’s control. In recent months, the collapse of the economy has progressed much faster, due in particular to the decline of the Syrian pound and the resulting enormous increase in food prices. Many fathers and mothers can no longer feed their families. The United Nations estimates that more than 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. The economic situation is so devastating that the regime is now investing more and more in the state drug trade as its main means of obtaining foreign currency. According to an April 2021 study by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research, the business with cannabis and especially with the stimulant Captagon has been under the control of the regime or drug barons close to it since 2018 - the year Assad consolidated his power. In particular, the trade of this stimulant, which gained dubious notoriety as a drug used by jihadists during the civil war, serves the government to obtain dollars and euros. These, in turn, are urgently needed to keep the followers under control. More and more smuggling routes are becoming known, especially via Lebanon and distant European ports, as well as through the Jordanian desert, which increases the pressure on neighboring countries.

The catastrophic economic situation in the regime areas is compounded by the lack of prospects for reunifying the country. The Idlib region in the northwest and parts of the country along the northern border are controlled primarily by Turkey and the Islamist militia HTS. In the northeast, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces rule, which are recruited primarily from Kurdish militias. For a long time, the threat of a return of the Islamic State was neglected - especially by the international community - so Islamists are now collecting protection money again in the east of the country and carrying out so-called targeted attacks on the regime's security structure. For all these reasons, even erstwhile loyalists are becoming increasingly dissatisfied. However, according to Jihad Yazigi, Editor of the business blog The Syria Report, criticism has so far been limited to the level below the president. The despot's power is not being questioned. In order to keep it that way, presidential elections are now being held. Bashar al-Assad – according to the expected message - remains the only leader who can unite the country and lead Syria out of the economic downward spiral.

In addition to internal factors, there is foreign policy. Assad must consider the interests of his allies. After years of involvement, both the Russian and Iranian regimes want at least compensation for their war costs. However, this could only be achieved if funds for reconstruction flow from the West. Both Tehran and Moscow are neither willing nor able to raise the enormous sums needed to get the country back on its feet. The United Nations estimates that 50 percent of the country's basic social infrastructure, such as roads, water supplies and buildings, is damaged or destroyed, and reconstruction would cost billions. Russia and Iran know: None of this can be repaired or replaced unless the international sanctions against the regime are at least decreased. Both allies then also hope to profit from the reconstruction aid because Russian and Iranian companies control large parts of Syrian industry. Indeed, the hopes of Assad supporters do not seem entirely unfounded, as the Arab League and individual Arab governments are pursuing the resumption of relations with Damascus. Voices are also growing louder from Europe that the realities in Syria must finally be acknowledged. Back in 2014, Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor, called for "Assad to be left alone. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Norbert Röttgen, has also recently brought up the idea of deportations to Syria, knowing full well that this would require cooperation with the Assad regime.

Germany and its European partners must make it clear, especially now, that no concessions can be expected without a transparent political transition process. In this situation, further pressure is needed, for example through further targeted sanctions against individual oligarchs involved in drug trafficking. If any thought at all can be given to easing the punitive measures, it must be to help the ordinary people. It is, of course, very difficult to distinguish between the two levels - the people and the regime - when it comes to both sanctions and the provision of aid. The EU states can, however, think about increased conditioning, also to breathe life back into the UN process.

Assad has torpedoed the Constitutional Committee, which was supposed to work out an interim political solution, from the beginning. A decision must be made here on setting a deadline and formulating clear consequences. A practical approach to the Assad regime cannot mean submitting to the conditions of a dictator who is responsible for the deaths of his countrymen by barrel bombs and poison gas, the displacement of millions of Syrians, and the destruction and division of his country. The replacement of President Assad must remain the main goal.

International actors, including the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, should continue to support civil society in this complicated situation. In the ten years of war, extensive structures have been formed abroad, on which a better, free future for Syria could be built. This is one of the few rays of hope in this catastrophe.

About the Author

Kristof Kleemann
Kristof Kleemann is the Head of the Beirut Office since March 2020. He obtained his Master's Degree in Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. After his studies, he worked at the German Chancellery in Berlin in the directorate for European affairs. Between 2010-2017, he was Chief of Staff of Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a liberal Member of Parliament and Vice-President of the European Parliament. After that, he worked for former European Commissioner Pavel Telička in the European Parliament before taking up his post with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in 2019. Kristof has been an active Member of the Free Democratic Party and serves as a delegate for the Party Congress of the European liberal party (ALDE).