Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Assad and elections

Syrian state media leaks float the idea that presidential elections in 2014 could be postponed, and Bashar Al-Assad remain in power — the worst case scenario for the opposition, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has announced that he would run for a third seven-year term as president in 2014 if the people asked him to. For himself, he had not yet made up his mind, but he still had nine months to think about it.

The opposition took Al-Assad’s announcement as a sign that he had no intention of conceding power, through an electoral process or otherwise. Opposition spokesmen added that his persistence in power was responsible for more than 120,000 deaths and the displacement of more than a quarter of the Syrian population.

The day after the president’s announcement, the state media released “leaks” of a US-Russian agreement to postpone Syrian elections for two years during which Al-Assad would remain in power. The reports confirmed the opposition’s assessment of Al-Assad’s intentions.

The leaks by media sources close to state intelligence agencies held that there were two reasons why Moscow and Washington agreed that Syrian presidential elections should be deferred. One was so Al-Assad could see through the dismantlement of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal and the elimination of extremist militias. The other was the difficulty of holding presidential elections at a time when so many Syrians had sought refuge abroad or were displaced. As Syria did not have embassies in most countries in the world, these people would not be able to vote. Also, the government did not have control over large parts of the country. Under the constitution that the regime introduced in early 2011, the president may postpone elections if circumstances make it too difficult to hold them.

The Syrian opposition does not want Al-Assad to stay in power for the remainder of his current term, let alone another seven-year term. It wants him out now and it refuses to take part in the Geneva II peace conference sponsored by the US and Russia on the grounds that this conference will not ensure Al-Assad’s ouster before his term ends in the middle of next year. As for the notion of postponing elections for two years, it is the worst scenario the Syrian opposition can imagine. It would come as a huge blow to the millions of people who have been harmed by the regime and who have their hopes pinned on its fall so that they can resume their normal lives.

As Al-Assad ponders over whether to run for another term his hold over many portions of the country is dwindling as the forces of the Free Syrian Army and Al-Qaeda affiliated militias gain ground. And as life grows harder and more dangerous by the day for the Syrian people, Al-Assad’s mind turns not to how to resolve the country’s crisis but how to ensure his perpetuity in power.

According to UN statistics, 6.1 million Syrians have been displaced or fled abroad. In addition, an estimated 2.3 million buildings have been wholly or partially destroyed, which is to say around half of the country’s buildings laid to waste. According to opposition human rights and media monitors, the regime has detained more than 200,000 opponents to its existence, destroyed whole villages and killed 120,000 people, which is a minimum estimate based on identified names. Who would possibly re-elect the president or ask him to run again in view of the death and destruction he wrought, opposition forces ask.

But the regime has never lacked wiles. It is playing on the political and military rifts and contradictions among the opposition as part of an attempt to create a climate, both at home and abroad, favourable to its continuation in power for another seven years during which Al-Assad will seek to redraw the political, social and military map. Another stratagem is to market the idea that the only alternative to the current regime is chaos or terrorism. Without him at the helm, the path will be cleared for Al-Qaeda groups and their like, who will turn Syria into another Afghanistan or Somalia, Al-Assad warns.

Even Russia, a strategic ally of Al-Assad, has begun to suggest that the balance of powers in Syria has begun to shift in favour of Islamists and international terrorists. The Russian foreign ministry has said ever more jihadist groups have entered the conflict alongside moderate militant factions. It was the first time that Russia had referred to the Free Syria Army as “moderate”.

The regime strategy of marketing the idea that Al-Qaeda has become a major player in Syria has been helped by the weak performance of — and disputes among — the Syrian political opposition, by the divisions between the Syrian revolutionary brigades, and by the fact that Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front has gained control over large portions of the country. Still, the Syrian people are not entirely convinced and are set on their goals, which are to topple the regime first and then to turn to fight against extremist Islamists.

The Free Syrian Army leadership has declared that it refuses to engage in any negotiations with the regime. It stresses that its first priority is to overthrow Al-Assad and that it will accept nothing less than his removal from power in any political solution now or in the future. The opposition also holds that extremist jihadist groups were the making of the regime and that the actions of these groups benefited no one but the regime, which used kidnappings, sectarian murders and other such acts to mar the image of the revolution. Indeed, many Syrians claim government forces now refrain from attacking any village or city controlled by these groups, implying an organic connection between the regime and the extremists.

Free Syrian Army spokesman Fahd Al-Masri stated that the jihadist groups are not part of the Syrian revolution and that they should leave Syria immediately. Syria does not lack people willing to fight; it lacks arms and international resolve to put an end to the ongoing tragedy of the Syrian people. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Masri said: “We want all the non-Syrian armed groups to leave our territory whether voluntarily or by force. This applies to both those groups that intervened in order to fight alongside the regime, such as Hizbullah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Iraqi militias, and those that are working for the regime and its Iranian ally surreptitiously, such as Al-Qaeda, its organisation for an Islamic state in Iraq and Greater Syria, and Al-Nusra Front with its wing that is subordinate to the Syrian regime.”

He continued: “We ask the Syrian people who were deceived by Al-Nusra Front and its pro-regime wing and who joined this front in the hope of defending their land and attaining their objectives, because it has military support, to leave it and to join the regiments of the Free Syrian Army in unity behind the patriotic agenda and the goals and principles of the revolution. We do not regard those extremist and terrorist organisations as part of the Syrian revolution. They do not represent the morals or the principles of the revolution. Rather, they carry out terrorist acts at the behest of their real supporters, prime among which are the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally, in order to tarnish the image of Muslims, to Balkanise the region and fragment the Middle East into numerous warring petty states.”

No one in Syria has seen the face of the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria organisation, which has never undertaken a single firm action against the Syrian regime. This, together with the fact that it easily took control of areas after regime forces withdrew, and set into motion its agenda to establish an Islamic emirate, to which Syrians object, as it is totally alien to their culture, has led the opposition to strongly suspect that this organisation, and those like it, are connected to the regime.

Syrian opposition member and rights activist Radif Mustafa told the Weekly: “In many places, those groups have stopped fighting the regime and turned their attention to seizing control of liberated areas that are rich in oil and agriculture. There they are attempting to smuggle in a form of backwards, unpatriotic, undemocratic despotism that is alien to the culture and history of Syrian society and that has no respect for human rights or fundamental freedoms. Those groups have grown stronger and more powerful and they have begun to impose a way of life that threatens the unity of the country and the Syrian social structure, and that is no less dangerous than the Syrian regime’s attempts to sow divisions between the components of Syrian society, in order to fragment them.”

When reading the evolution of the map of extremist Islamist groups during the past two years, it is important to recall that the regime had released hundreds of Al-Qaeda members and other Islamist extremists from Syrian prisons less than three months after the revolution began. In addition, more than 1,000 Al-Qaeda members escaped (or were helped to escape) from Iraqi prisons so that they could engage in combat in Syria. The Iraqi opposition believes that this operation was planned and funded by the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. It should also be borne in mind that the Syrian regime had a curious relationship with Al-Qaeda during the last decade at a time when Syria served as a conduit for Al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq. As for the actions currently being taken by such extremist groups, such as the attacks against villages inhabited by Alawi and Christian minorities, their timing serves no one but the regime, opposition figures says.

Whether or not the opposition is correct in its claim that there is a relationship between the regime and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, those groups are equipped and prepared to rebel against the regime. They see Syria as fertile ground for their Islamist project and have no intention of allowing the regime to continue. They will engage in fierce battles to bring it down and to expand the territory for their emirate. Naturally, they dismiss all thought of elections, a process which, in all events, they believe is inconsistent with their interpretations of Islamic law.

Al-Qaeda fighters are keen to fight to the death for the sake of the backwards, extremist Islamic caliphate they envision. The Syrians, by contrast, are a peaceful people and only believe in recourse to arms for self-defence. They seek a dignified life through the establishment of a state in which the rule of law prevails. They do not want to see their country turn into another Afghanistan or Somalia, but nor do they want Al-Assad’s regime to survive under any circumstances. They reject extremist regimes under any banner, be it Islamist or secular.

If Al-Assad remains in power until next year, it is difficult to imagine that the Syrian people would approve his electoral bid for another term. It is just as difficult to imagine them agreeing to a postponement in elections that would keep him in power, even if this is to fulfil a Western demand. There has been too much bloodshed. Even pro-regime political forces, at least among non-Alawi affiliates, have come to the conviction that a regime that has failed to establish security in the country and has left Syria prey to the forces of international terrorism is a regime that cannot safeguard the Syrian people’s future and, therefore, one that needs to be changed.

Meanwhile, global opinion is certain to oppose the continuation in power of a president alleged to have unleashed chemical weapons on his people and who sacrificed the lives of thousands of children in order to cling to his seat of power.

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