Assad’s re-election may change regional equation

Many countries may accept Assad staying in power because their priority has moved to confronting the terrorist threat.

al-monitor A woman marks her ballot paper in the presidential election at a polling center in Damascus, June 3, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

terrorism, syrian crisis, syria, presidential elections, elections, bashar al-assad

Jun 4, 2014

There’s no suspense and no mystery regarding who will win the Syrian presidential election. Most voters likely already knew that President Bashar al-Assad would not leave the People’s Palace and hand over his post to one of his “rivals” — Hassan al-Nouri or Maher al-Hajjar — especially since the Syrians who voted at home and abroad support Assad.

But the Syrian election deserves to be analyzed differently from just claiming that it's a sham. Before the election, some wings of the internal Syrian opposition asked Syrians to boycott the election, with some legitimate reasons. But in the end, the Syrians were given a choice between Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and the jihadist groups on the one hand, or to cast a ballot as an act that fortifies the Syrian position on the other. Damascus scored a political victory by the mere fact that thousands of Syrians, in the war’s fourth year, went to the polling stations despite a regional and international anti-Syria war managed by Washington, Paris, Riyadh, Doha, Istanbul and Amman.

It's obvious that organizing the election would not have been possible had the Syrian army not regained the initiative on the ground over the span of nearly two years after a full year of retreat toward urban centers, especially Damascus. But the army reorganized its ranks, its weapons and its allies, and formed a strategy to counter the jihadists and the Friends of Syria group.

Regaining control over major Syrian cities seemed like a key condition to hold the election on June 3 and to pick up the remains of the Syrian electoral body in order to test it in a presidential election for the first time in half a century.

West Aleppo was strengthened and received most residents of opposition-controlled east Aleppo. Two million Aleppans reconstituted the social fabric of Syria’s economic capital and recovered it from the foreign fighters, Turkish intelligence and the militias of the countrysides. The National Coalition and others failed to to fill the political space or form an acceptable administration that allows addressing the Syrians directly and bypassing the “Sharia bodies” and Chechen warlords.

The distribution of the ballot boxes coincided with the recovery of Homs and its Old City (Homs is one of the largest Syrian provinces and the heart of the central region, without which Syria cannot vote and cannot be ruled). Meanwhile, the Syrian coast received 2 million displaced people from Idlib, Aleppo and Damascus. The Syrian army seems to have secured its control of Daraa’s plains and routes toward Damascus, routes that are guarded by the First Armored Corps.

Dismantling of the siege by the two Ghoutas on Damascus contributed to protecting the regime’s heart and base. The military operations, the fierce fighting and the heavy shelling in the north has emptied opposition areas from the population that supports the opposition and dispersed it. The Qalamoun battle has resolved the control over the core of Syria, from Daraa in the south to Aleppo in the north.

Waiting for the swearing-in speech

The election, despite its strong external and internal meanings and messages, is not a solution by itself. We should wait until July 17, when the new presidential term starts, and hear the inaugural address to see if June 3 marked a turning point toward recruiting the elements for an internal solution that would launch a political dynamic to liberate Syrians from international tutelage. That would be a very ambitious goal in the present circumstances.

There is talk about the possibility of forming a broad-based government that would implement the “Geneva” formula without having to return to the United Nations. The formula being considered involves giving the opposition, the independents and the loyalists 10 ministers each. In the coming days, there may be a clarification of the ideas by some opposition members who went to Cairo in early May to meet with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy. They asked Egypt to call for an initiative, with conditions, for dialogue with the regime. If the conditions are met, opposition members such as Moaz al-Khatib and Haytham Manna may move forward with that initiative.

The opposition is setting conditions that the president give up his power to appoint all ministers and move to a constitutional declaration that would reduce presidential powers, particularly stripping the president of the right to dismiss ministers. Those conditions would constitute an entry point for participating in a national unity government.

The Syrian regime may choose to consider its electoral success as a mandate to abandon the Geneva formula of removing President Assad from power and handing over power to the National Coalition. The regime rather may seek a settlement based on the balance of political and military power and that Assad will remain in power in Damascus for the next seven years — by force of his electoral legitimacy — and exclude any solution from Geneva or elsewhere that would include removing Assad from the People’s Palace after the people elected Assad president on June 3.

A quick international response

The first international response to the election results, besides the traditional positions, will come this time from the UN General Assembly. Knowledgeable diplomatic sources informed As-Safir that broad consultations were taking place among Western countries — notably the United States, France and Britain — and the Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Islamic countries, notably Turkey, and may result in a decision to not resort to the UN Security Council for fear of a Russian-Chinese veto.

The sources added that a draft was prepared and will be presented during the next few hours to the UN General Assembly and that the draft has majority support. The draft would exclude the participation of the Syrian Republic’s delegation (headed by Bashar al-Jaafari) at UN meetings but would not suspend Syria’s UN membership.

Lebanese and Arab signals

Regionally, the crowds of Syrian voters at the Syrian embassies in Beirut and Amman have restored the Syrian role, especially in Lebanon. The Syrian election in Lebanon seemed more important than the one in Syria. It can even be said that the most important event in the Syrian election was that a large Syrian crowd, regardless of attempts to minimize its numbers, has revealed March 14’s miscalculations by going out to vote for Assad beyond all sectarian affiliations, and in a shocking way.

The election was an occasion to restore full cooperation between Lebanese security agencies with the Syrian authorities in order to protect the election, in anticipation of Syria returning to play a role in Lebanon and in Lebanon’s political decision-making, and to establish a power balance to face interference from Gulf countries. It is no exaggeration to say that the Syrians voted in Beirut to restore their role in Lebanon and to have a say in Lebanese matters, especially in the presidential election, just like all external forces that are advising the Lebanese in all matters while claiming that they don’t interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

Those Arab countries that helped their Syrian nationals to vote can be classified as countries that will move closer to Damascus sooner or later, according to Syrian officials. The Kuwaitis showed clear flexibility in dealing with the Syrian election and are sending strong messages to Damascus that go beyond Oman’s break with the Gulf Cooperation Council. In his visit to Iran two days ago, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was quoted as saying about the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “he’s not only Iran’s supreme guide, but that of the entire region.”

Egypt and Saudi Arabia

But the biggest bet is on Egypt after the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It's no secret that the security contacts between Syria and Egypt have expanded recently, especially with the revelation that there are training bases for Egyptian “jihadists” in northern Syria.

A Syrian official said that the Egyptians are expanding their diplomatic and political rapprochement but that the actual test of Egypt’s transformation will be in the coming weeks, and that the Egyptian president-elect should not limit himself to Nasserist slogans but that he has to apply them by returning Egypt as the historic protector of the Levant basin and restore the depth of its regional security in Syria, and that Sisi faces challenges regarding his Syrian options because he needs Saudi and UAE support for the Egyptian economy.

Egypt had begun to send signals about a change in its attitudes toward Syria. Egypt chose to represent itself by low-level delegates at the Friends of Syria meetings to see what’s going on there, while Egypt’s foreign minister stayed away.

It's no coincidence that the Syrian presidential election day intersected with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal asking to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the request of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to deliver a message from the king about Syria.

Those developments are keeping pace with the low probability that the power balance in Syria will change soon. The priority of the Friends of Syria group in Europe, the group that is financing and planning the war, has become to save European capitals from a 9/11-style terrorist attack by “jihadists” after they return from Syria to their homes in Europe.

The Syrian opposition abroad should be worried about attempts by European security services to deal realistically with the fact that the Syrian regime has stood fast despite all expectations that it would rapidly fall and by the fact that many European officials are requesting Damascus’s help and coordination to confront terrorism.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Mohammad Ballout