Syrians vote Tuesday in a presidential election that means nothing but speaks volumes about Bashar al-Assad’s power.
“Nothing will change” as a result of this vote, said Lina Khatib, the director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. Mr. al-Assad still will be president, the opposition still will be fighting, millions will have been displaced, and 160,000 people still will have been killed in a civil war now entering its fourth year.
But to Mr. al-Assad it’s necessary to go through the exercise “so the international community sees him as a legitimate leader,” Ms. Khatib said.
“The vote is a sign of normalcy” amidst all the bombs and chaos, said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Center and a specialist on Syria. Mr. al-Assad will use it, he said, “to reinforce his narrative” that the war is “about fighting terrorists.” Mr. Sayigh and Ms. Khatib spoke to journalists Monday in a conference call.
Despite the turbulent conditions, a surprisingly large number of people are expected to make their way to ballot boxes – as Syrian refugees did last week in Lebanon – and almost all will vote for Mr. al-Assad. The Syrian autocrat will use this to demonstrate the measure of popular support he still enjoys.
Of course there’s no way to verify the number of people who vote or for whom they voted since no impartial monitors are present. But there’s no need to verify the numbers, said Ms. Khatib. “Those who vote support the regime, either because of favour or fear,” she said.
“Fear is Assad’s great legacy,” agreed Mr. Sayigh. “People haven’t lost the habit of fearing this regime.”
“Even outside the country, people believe the regime still has the ability to track them down,” he said.
That’s what drove so many Syrians in Lebanon to cast ballots in an advance poll. There have been reports, said Ms. Khatib, that people were threatened with reprisals if they didn’t vote. “Some were told they’d never be allowed to return to Syria, others were threatened with a fine and in some cases, they were told their families in Syria would be harmed.”
There have been a lot of cases in the past two or three years of people going back to Syria “to do their [compulsory] military service,” said Mr. Sayigh. That’s how much they fear the regime.
In Syria, even more then in Lebanon, there’s a massive campaign to get out the vote. And that’s about the only campaigning there is.
Mr. al-Assad’s two principal opponents, Hassan Nouri, a university professor, and Maher Hajjar, a leftist MP, have not campaigned and offer no program. They’re running only to make the exercise look legitimate, said Ms. Khatib.
Mr. al-Assad himself has done some media interviews but has not campaigned on the ground. His posters, pamphlets and determined groups of supporters, however, are everywhere.
In this way, the Syrian leader resembles Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the military strongman who last week was elected Egypt’s new president despite not appearing in public throughout the entire campaign.
The two have a great deal in common, said Ms. Khatib. Both had reason to be confident of victory, both depended on the fear of the electorate and neither thought there was a need to campaign.
The similarity is “something Bashar can use,” said Mr. Sayigh. He will argue that “since the West accepts the election results in Egypt,” why shouldn’t they accept them in Syria?
One might expect Mr. al-Assad, given he is in such a powerful position, would be putting out feelers to the opposition or to its supporters looking for a way to make a deal and end the conflict. But “so far, there’s little evidence of a change in approach,” said Mr. Sayigh.
The President is willing to talk to opposition people but not to those he calls “terrorists,” by which Mr. al-Assad means anyone who has employed violence in this war.
“Geneva [the U.S. and Russian organized peace conference] has been dead for a while,” said Mr. Sayigh. “And there’s no sign of anything going on behind the scenes.
“This won’t change because of the election,” he concluded, “and it will be the case for a long time to come.”