Earlier this month Bashar al-Assad, the embattled leader of Syria, was officially sworn in for a third term as the country’s president. Few expected he would make it to this point. As his power reached its nadir in mid-2012 with a rebel invasion of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, most in Western capitals were publically asserting that he would fall within weeks.
Yet Mr. Assad, with the help of his allies in Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, has defied the odds, and shows no sign of relinquishing power as he begins his fifteenth year in power.
The inauguration ceremony itself was not a celebration of victory in a hard-fought electoral campaign. It was instead merely the final act in the triumphal sideshow that was the Syrian electoral process conducted earlier this year. That the goal of the process was not to conduct a free and fair survey of popular opinion was not a surprise to anyone; indeed, such an undertaking was all but impossible in a country that has seen 170,000 dead from three years of conflict.
The fraudulent nature of the vote was clearly evident from the start. Out of twenty-four individuals who applied for candidacy, only three, including Assad, were deemed acceptable by Syria’s electoral commission. The two opposition candidates themselves had no intention of winning. Both declared their support for Assad, with one candidate going so far as to announce that “winning is not the goal” and that he was happy merely to be a part of the process.
Certainly, the voting procedures themselves bore little resemblance to those in Western democracies. Foreign journalists visiting polling stations draped in Assad paraphernalia were often handed ballots themselves and noted no attempts to record voters or prevent repeated voting. The election observers that were present were part of delegations from countries such as Russia, Iran and North Korea, their presence clearly serving more to publically display those countries’ support for Mr. Assad’s regime than to augment the state’s capabilities.
In the end, the incumbent president won an announced 88.7% of the popular vote. The irony of this statistic is that it was likely lower than the actual percentage of votes cast for Assad. Reporters in Damascus and elsewhere repeatedly stated that they did not encounter a single person who voted for one of the other presidential candidates. Mr. Assad himself would certainly have prevailed in any truly fair vote, being seen begrudgingly by a large number of war-weary Syrians as the only figure with the means to end the conflict.
The real purpose of the election, of course, was to showcase the Syrian government’s resiliency and strength. The mere fact that the regime was able to engineer this spectacle at all is a testament to its weathering of the uprising – and to the fact that it holds Syria’s major population centres. It also serves as a reminder to Syrians in neighbouring countries that the regime holds the key to their futures. Rumors abound that Syrian officials visited refugee camps in Lebanon and intimidated their inhabitants, taking names and warning that those who did not vote would be unable to return to Syria.
A major takeaway from this show of strength is that Mr. Assad will not be changing Syria’s power structure any time soon. The fact that the regime is supremely hesitant to conduct even cosmetic reforms is evident in conditions in areas under its control. On Syria’s Mediterranean coast, a stronghold of the government and the heartland of its ruling Alawite sect, an image of continuity dominates. The city of Tartus, unaffected by the violence, could have served as an ideal flagship for the regime to carry out reforms, demonstrating to the rest of the country and to the international community its willingness to adapt. Instead, it has strived to maintain an air of aloofness and stubborn intractability, sending the same message as the state’s media: there are no problems in Syria.
This is not to suggest that recent Syrian history offered much hope for reform anyways. Mr. Assad had promised political reform for eleven years prior to the outbreak of the present crisis, consistently finding excuses to delay doing so. Some of these were valid: he had first to contend with the old guard, the conservative hardline holdovers from his father’s rule, for policy control, while wars in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon made for a difficult regional environment. But he still bears responsibility for the regime’s crackdowns, from the one that followed the short-lived political opening dubbed the ‘Damascus Spring’ after he succeeded his father in 2000 to that in early 2011.
It is important to remember that the initial protests then did not call for his downfall. In March 2011, provincial demonstrators merely wanted to see despotic local officials expunged and for the regime to initiate a serious effort to eliminate the country’s debilitating corruption. Mr. Assad instead let the security forces speak for him; when he finally did respond several weeks later, he offered little in the way of reconciliation and instead deemed the protests to be yet another foreign plot.
It should surprise few, then, that at his inauguration speech the Syrian leader offered little of substance and nothing of tangible reforms. He threatened “terrorists,” the regime’s catchall term for the opposition, stating that Syria’s army and government militias would “strike terrorism wherever it exists.” He called for “national reconciliation,” that wonderfully ambiguous term that allows for a parade of toothless government conciliatory committees and endless delays to substantive change. His tour de force was the christening of the 2011 uprisings, in his country and elsewhere, as the “fake Arab Spring,” a Western and Zionist plot to destabilize his country and the region.
More than anything else, labeling the protests in this manner serves to totally delegitimize them, and subsequently any calls for reforms to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria contained therein. In many ways, time stands still in Damascus, and as the conflict continues to deepen Mr. Assad’s eternal term in office marches on.
Featured Photo by watchsmart