Syria’s Presidential Election and the Absence of the American Role

On May 26, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won a fourth seven-year term in a practically uncontested election. No one was surprised by the original announcement that presidential elections would be organized because, to Assad, it is important to behave as if everything is normal in the country. After ten years of war during which almost 700,000 died, some two thirds of Syrian territory is under American, Turkish, and Russian control and 12 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries and around the world.

In Assad’s view, these realities do not appear important, for his so-called presidential campaign continued to repeat older slogans he used in 2000, 2007, and 2014—that he is “the guarantee of stability” and “the sole guarantor for Syria.” Apparently, the regime was content to simply repeat those slogans without change or amendment because voters will not protest, as they are intimidated by the prospect of arrest or liquidation. Indeed, the message from Assad to the people is simple: repeat the lie or perish if you resist. Perhaps that is why he and his wife went to cast their votes in a precinct in the Douma suburb of Damascus, which had been bombed with chemical weapons on many occasions during the war.

The Election Will Change Nothing in Assad’s Syria

It is not likely that the latest presidential election will lead to any change in Syria’s political or military situation. It merely reaffirms the fact that Assad will remain the real obstacle in the way of a true transition in the country or in the positions of regional or international actors. That was evident in the communiqué released after a meeting that involved France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and the United States, which denied the legitimacy of the election because it is outside the framework of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015.

It is not likely that the latest presidential election will lead to any change in Syria’s political or military situation. It merely reaffirms the fact that Assad will remain the real obstacle in the way of a true transition in the country.

It is likely that Russia will use the election result to try again to market Assad in the Arab world so that Syria can retake its seat in the League of Arab States and internationally. That will be contingent upon the ability of the European Union and the United States to maintain their posture of opposition to the Syrian president. It also depends on whether US President Joe Biden publicly acts to thwart Assad’s rehabilitation, especially since the Biden Administration does not appear to care much about Syria and its political transition. Washington is mostly concerned today about helping to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country—a commendable pursuit—instead of addressing the other complicated issues of the Syrian crisis. In his latest meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reemphasized the importance of allowing humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border. The agreement on the last UN crossing into Syria expires on July 10; there are concerns that Russia could use its veto power at the Security Council to scuttle attempts to secure assistance for the last opposition area in Syria, if Moscow’s conditions are not met.

The election and continuation of Assad’s rule will destroy whatever hope there is of the Geneva political process and Resolution 2254, which spelled out the stages of political transition, the writing of a new constitution, and elections within 18 months. None of these goals will be served by Assad’s election. In fact, the Geneva process is likely to lose all credibility in the eyes of Syrians who thought it could lead to a real transition from authoritarian rule.

Assad’s “Resurrection”

Assad’s reelection comes at a time when many Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf, have decided to reinstate relations with his regime. Saudi Arabia sent its intelligence chief Khaled bin Ali al-Humaidan to Damascus, where he met with Assad’s national security advisor, Ali al-Mamlouk. The visit was indicative of a serious shift in the kingdom’s position toward the Syrian president, from antagonism to reconciliation, thus heralding a change in relations with Iran and Russia. Before that, the United Arab Emirates had reestablished relations with Damascus and reopened its embassy in the city, followed by Mauritania; these actions were encouraged by Egypt which, for a long time, had been anxious for Syria to reclaim its seat in the Arab League. Other states such as Algeria, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon had never distanced themselves very much from the Syrian regime.

Rehabilitating Assad in the Arab world has indeed become possible. In the past, when the UAE tried to play a role in the process of restoring Syria to the Arab fold, it was obstructed by the Trump Administration, which had threatened sanctions in accordance with the Caesar Act (enacted by the US Congress in 2019). The legislation prohibited dealing with the Syrian regime, investing in reconstruction in Syria, and rehabilitating Assad. But now, with the Biden Administration still not announcing a clear policy on Syria, there is a feeling that the Trump Administration’s tough stand may be relaxing.

With the Biden Administration still not announcing a clear policy on Syria, there is a feeling that the Trump Administration’s tough stand may be relaxing.

This change in the American posture coincided with a serious Russian effort to demonstrate to the international community that the war in Syria is practically over and that reconstruction has already begun. Russia is also playing the card of the return of Syrian refugees to convince European and other states that the time has come to accept and negotiate with the Syrian regime. Should that happen, Assad’s crimes against the Syrian people will be forgotten and the international community’s perception of him as a war criminal will no longer be an impediment to dealing with his regime. To be sure, it is only western public opinion and the myriad pieces of legislation and executive decisions in the West that are preventing Assad’s rehabilitation in the international community.

Biden and the Syrian Conflict

What has transpired so far during the current administration indicates that Syria is low on President Biden’s priorities. It is true that press releases and public statements from the State Department still insist on the old American position of a political solution and transition in Syria, but Washington still will not exert the effort necessary to force change. Despite Assad’s audacity in calling for a sham election, neither the United States nor European countries appear to be ready to build and sustain an effort to pressure Russia to begin a real process for transitioning from authoritarian rule. In fact, there does not appear to be anything that prevents Assad, with assistance from Russia and Iran, from attacking and taking over the last bastion of the opposition’s control in Idlib province. Today, there also is nothing that prevents Russia from turning the ongoing—albeit unwarranted and inconclusive—negotiations in Geneva into a full farce because Syrians supposedly elected their president.

On the other hand, the Biden Administration has decided to keep American troops in Syria. American officials have paid visits to areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-armed force in northeastern Syria. Such a presence may not decrease or end altogether, in light of the news about the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) in the region. IS is staging a comeback because of the American failure to address conditions of poverty and insecurity around Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

Under current circumstances it is hard to convince the international community of the connection between fighting the Islamic State and political transition in Syria.

Finally, under current circumstances it is hard to convince the international community of the connection between fighting the Islamic State and political transition in Syria. This is becoming even more difficult with the apparent competition and animosity between parties and factions that were previously engaged in fighting IS. Kurdish forces in the SDF are at loggerheads with Turkish troops in the area; Russian soldiers sometimes harass the Americans deployed there; and Iran-supported militias try to claim territory that may give the Islamic Republic some influence.

Indeed, the last farcical presidential election in Syria has practically become emblematic of the utter failure of efforts to address the Syrian conflict. As Bashar al-Assad renews his term and relies even more on support from Russia and Iran, the country continues to drift slowly and aimlessly. What is certain is that the United States is unlikely to move Syria up on its list of priorities; the Biden Administration is unwilling to pay the high political price and, in truth, seems to be eager to abandon its role in the already complicated Middle East environment.

Radwan Ziadeh is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Radwan and read his previous publications click here