Voting Under Fire — Literally

Article Summary
The referendum on a new Syrian constitution may be the only one in history to have taken place in the midst of open warfare, notes Fawwaz Traboulsi. The fear-motivated supporters of the regime and its steadfast, impassioned rejection by just under half the Syrian population together serve to discredit the vote, he argues.

Out of all the referenda in the world, Syria’s recent constitutional referendum was unique — for it was done in the shadow of an actual war, waged by the regime against a large proportion of its people. The regime did not consider declaring a truce — not even for a day — to allow the voting to proceed in peace. Nor did the military machine allow the people of Homs and other "hotspots" throughout Syria to bury their dead with dignity, or without opening fire on the mourners; nor did they allow the Red Crescent or the International Red Cross to evacuate the wounded and transport food and medical aid to the besieged and starving towns, neighborhoods, cities, villages and suburbs.

The day of the referendum was a normal day of war. To illustrate how normal it was, the day following the referendum saw the usual increase in the number of dead as a result of the regime's habit of taking advantage of "political" events — such as when it accepted Arab mediation, when it consented to the arrival of Arab observers or when the Syrian issue was being discussed at the UN — to escalate the killings, as part of its policy of "decisiveness," which never seems to come.

President Assad's statement on the day of the referendum reflected this reality. He said, "they are strong in the media, but we are stronger on the ground." Of course, he was not talking about the Israeli occupation forces in the Golan Heights. He was rather dehumanizing the Syrian people — people who have been demonstrating and protesting against his regime for nearly a year, along with their dead, wounded, detained, kidnapped and missing — depicting them as abstract objects on television, concocted by Gulf satellite channels. And his response to that "powerful" Gulf media must, of course, come in the form of armored vehicles and artillery on the Syrian "ground."

The Syrian referendum was also unique in other ways, for it is difficult to see how voting under fire in a referendum for a new constitution can deliver the Syrians from the war they have been living through day and night.

The new constitution was approved by a lower percentage than the usual numbers seen during the golden days of the Syrian and Arab dictatorships. Regardless of the precise figures, what is certain is that those who went to the polls and voted "yes" did not do so based on the new constitution's reforms but rather for the sake of continuity. They voted out of fear of the unknown, out of fear of repression, of losing their jobs or interests, of chaos or of the fundamentalists and Salafists. Half the Syrians voted in order to preserve the status quo, a political order based on the quasi-absolute power of the ruler whose powers have been expanded by the new constitution rather than reduced. That is not insignificant. Arab media reported the results of an opinion poll showing that the regime is still supported by more than half of the Damascene population. Even though the sample size was only 1,000 Syrian citizens, that poll is worth commenting on. Just under half of Syria's population opposes the regime not only in opinion polls but also through protest for an entire year, demanding the fall of the regime and the prosecution of its officials. Soldiers and officers in the armed forces are defecting and responding to the regime's armed violence in kind. Peaceful civilian protesters are resorting to arms. Doesn't all that invalidate being supported by a "simple majority?”

At any rate, this majority vote on the constitution did not produce a solution but rather demonstrated that the regime's media is weaker than the Gulf media, as the head of state himself recognized.

A solution should involve opening a new phase of internationalization and Arabization, where the solutions proposed would compete with each other.
The Gulf Initiative's "Yemeni solution" has reemerged, proposed by new Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki at the opening of the Friends of Syria conference. It would be useful to first see how the Yemeni solution actually worked out in Yemen. The Yemeni solution required the president to depart after he and his associates were granted immunity from any accountability or punishment for their crimes and corruption during their reign. Soon after Ali Abdullah Saleh left his post and after a brief visit to the United States, he came back to hand over power to his vice president and member of his party, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi. But Saleh remains the leader of the largest party in the country and has ministers in the cabinet alongside those of the opposition, of which the strongest component is the "Yemeni Congregation for Reform," a tribal Islamic party that ruled the country alongside Saleh during most of his reign. The former president still leads most deputies in the People's Assembly while his sons and nephews control the security forces, the army's elite units and a large portion of the armed forces, including the air force. Facing this "Gulf Initiative," which ignored the most prominent issues in the country — the southern movement and the Houthi movement — is a popular opposition in which the rebellious youth throughout Yemen play a prominent role. The opposition demands barring Saleh from being politically active, removing his associates from the military leadership, and revoking his immunity.

The Gulf initiative, which absorbed the popular revolts, has American fingerprints all over it. There is no doubt that the US administration wants Arab armies to remain the political power base in Arab countries. The US ambassador said that his country favored continued cooperation with the sons and relatives of Saleh in the army and security services. He added that his government is ready to rehabilitate and train the Yemeni armed forces to enhance their role in fighting terrorism.

For its part, the Syrian regime seems to have almost convinced the US that it was fighting "international terrorism," as did president Saleh before him. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the peculiar announcement that Al-Qaeda has become part of the Syrian opposition. But the US position is fraught with problematic geostrategic contradictions. The US want to weaken Iran by either changing the Syrian regime or breaking its ties with Iran. On the other hand, the US is concerned about who will take Syria's place in controlling Hezbollah and protecting Israel's northern border. But Clinton now appears to favor the former choice, because she has called on the Syrian army, businessmen and minorities to break with the regime, and hinted about arming the opposition.

The problem facing US diplomacy is that the “Arab solution" upon which it depended has started to show cracks. The original patron of the idea of a "Yemeni solution" for Syria no longer supports it. This is the meaning of Saudi and Qatari dissent, which has practically voided the results of the Tunis conference. The calculations of the two regimes are not identical; Saudi motives are predominantly anti-Iran and driven by the desire for solutions that give it a leadership role.

There is also the Russian solution. The latest in this regard is that the Syrian regime, which has refused to talk to its people except via bullet and bombs, has asked Russia to talk with some factions of the Syrian opposition about the formation of a new government. Russia has been taking on similar initiatives for months. It also has its own candidates for the presidency and government ministries — but of course, none of this is considered "interference" in Syria's internal affairs!

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