This is not the first time de Mistura has indicated that he sees Daesh’s defeat as the key to ending the war in Syria. How can a peace envoy hope to succeed in his role when he misdiagnoses the cause of the conflict he is tasked with ending? It did not start with Daesh, which did not even exist at the time — this should go without saying. As such, the conflict will not end with its demise.
From a military standpoint, much of the country remains outside the Syrian regime’s control, and the war could escalate as opposing sides fight over the carcass of Daesh’s “caliphate.” Furthermore, realizing President Bashar Assad’s repeated vow to recapture the whole country would mean opening an entirely new front, against the Kurds, who control swathes of northern Syria and with whom the regime has thus far avoided conflict. Planning their own elections, the Kurds do not seem to be in any rush to roll back their declared autonomy.
De Mistura’s hope for free and fair elections within a year of Daesh’s downfall is predicated on “the international community… helping both the opposition and the government by pushing the government to accept a real negotiation.”
How can someone so familiar with the regime’s obstructionist negotiating tactics — he has presided over the ‘peace process’ for most of its lifespan — think that Assad would finally entertain “a real negotiation” when the military tide has turned decidedly in his favor?
It is preposterous to think that a dictator who preferred to destroy his country than relinquish his absolute grip on power would finally decide to heed his people’s democratic rights and aspirations, at a time when his regime is no longer under existential threat.
It is equally preposterous to assume that Assad’s allies, having invested so much in his survival and dictatorship, would “push” him to adopt a genuinely democratic system that could see their investments undone.
In March 2016, Assad said he would consider an election before his current seven-year term ends in 2021 “if the Syrian people wanted it.” This from a man who deems himself sole arbiter of what his people want. Were he at all interested in heeding his people’s will, the conflict would never have started.
The only election Assad would entertain is a sham one designed only to rubberstamp his authority. This is not hypothetical — the elections of 2000, 2007 and 2014 clearly display his warped idea of what passes for democracy.
Having won 99.7 percent of the vote in 2000 (when the constitution was amended just so he could ‘run’) and 97.6 percent in 2007, Assad in 2014 — needing to burnish his democratic credentials amid international calls for him to step down — settled for a slightly less ridiculous electoral victory of 88.7 percent.
To verify the authenticity of the 2014 election, the regime invited observers from “friendly countries” — bastions of democracy such as North Korea, China, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe and Cuba.
It was the first time in 40 years that more than one candidate was allowed, but eligibility restrictions ensured that Assad faced no real opponents. Candidates need the support of 35 members of Parliament, which is so dominated by the ruling Baath party that no one could run without its blessing.
Candidates must also have lived continuously in Syria for 10 years prior to nomination, automatically ruling out those in exile for daring to voice dissent. Furthermore, anyone “convicted of a dishonorable felony” is not eligible “even if he was reinstated” — in other words, no one who has ever been a political prisoner (not exactly a rarity in Syria).
The only election Assad would entertain is a sham one designed to rubberstamp his authority. This is not hypothetical — the elections of 2000, 2007 and 2014 clearly display his warped idea of what passes for democracy.
No wonder, then, that the Supreme Constitutional Court accepted only three of the 24 applications to run for president: Assad, Maher Hajjar and Hassan Al-Nouri. But to call the latter two challengers would be woefully misleading. Besides being unknown before their nominations, and having far less exposure than the incumbent in the run-up to the vote, they heaped praise on him throughout, and expressed total agreement with his handling of the war.
The Associated Press, which interviewed Hajjar, reported that he “offered little to differentiate himself from Assad.” And Al-Nouri may as well have been the president’s campaign spokesman, saying Syrians “need Assad to continue leading” the country.
Al-Nouri described the incumbent as a “great” and “very strong leader” who is “believed in by many Syrians.” He added: “You have to respect what he’s doing.” Al-Nouri’s icing on the cake: “I’m not opposition.” At least he spared us the pretense.
The Syrian electorate also faced severe limitations, rendering the official turnout of almost 74 percent absurd. New ID documents that can only be issued by the regime were necessary to cast a ballot, and voting only took place in regime-controlled areas, where Syrians reported threats and pressure to take part and re-elect Assad.
Refugees could only take part if they left the country via official border crossings (most in neighboring Turkey and Iraq did not), and they had to cast their ballots at a Syrian Embassy. The Interior Ministry said only 200,000 Syrians outside the country would be eligible to vote — less than 8 percent of the total refugee population at the time. They too said they received threats, such as not being allowed to re-enter Syria or having their homes confiscated.
In Lebanon, there were reports of men — identifying themselves as members of a Lebanese political party allied to Assad (hint hint) — asking Syrian refugees who would be voting, and taking down names. “Their presence was a reminder to the more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon that they are still within the reach of (the) Damascus government,” Reuters reported.
This is Assad’s notion of democracy — a tool to manipulate in order to remain in power, rather than to give the Syrian people genuine freedom of choice and expression. Expecting him to embrace true democracy is to be as deluded as the useful idiots who believe he was freely and fairly elected last time.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.