The new electoral law approved by the Syrian parliament on 13 March seemingly paves the way for multiple candidates to run in July’s presidential election. This will not fool many. Assad is here to stay.
The Syrian opposition is likely to be excluded due to section 30 of the electoral law. This stipulates that a candidate must be at least 40 years old, a permanent resident in Syria for at least the past 10 years, married to a Syrian citizen and have no criminal record. Furthermore, the poll will not be held under international observation, but rather under the control of the security apparatus, just as during the regime of Assad’s father.
Government decisions regarding the election will severely restrict the rights of Syrians abroad to vote. For example, any person without a valid passport is prohibited from entering or leaving the country. This decision coincided with the closure of Syrian embassies in a number of countries, which means that it will no longer be possible for any Syrian abroad, of which there are millions, to return to the country and vote. The new law will turn the refugees into exiles and deportees because of their inability to obtain passports.
Playing the minority card
How could a real election take place when thousands of civilians are in prison? The conflict has killed over 100,000 people, including women and children. It has driven almost half the population out of their homes, leaving behind destroyed cities and – even more importantly – a growing divide within Syrian society.
The regime seems confident that support from Syria’s minorities will play a strong role in securing an election victory for Assad. Given how they have suffered at the hands of the regime, though, it seems extraordinary that they would vote for the status quo.
On Monday Syrian rebels released 13 Greek Orthodox nuns they had held captive for over three months. A deal was made between the government and the Nusra front, which involved Qatar and Lebanon as mediators. In return, the regime agreed to release 148 women from government prisons. But Assad has made no attempt to negotiate for the release of the many Alawite officers, soldiers, women and children who have been kidnapped by rebels. Nor has the release of dozens of others, activists and civilians of minority backgrounds, been considered.
The deal that led to the release of Christian nuns is one example of how Assad makes cynical concessions to give the impression that the regime is serious about protecting minority groups. It also aims to mollify his western detractors.
Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad has used minorities to help him stay in power. The government has presented itself as their only protector from an uncertain fate in a post-Assad, Islamist-ruled Syria. While the international community has shown concern about the fate that might face the minorities post-Assad, it must understand that focusing on minorities, at the expense of the majority Sunni community, will only complicate matters.
The sponsorship of minorities harks back to the Ottoman era when competing international powers protected minorities, such as Druze, Alawites and Greek Orthodox to further their own interests. Such an approach, however, only increases the already existing gap between all Syrians, and not just along minority-majority lines.
Instead of repeating old mistakes, international actors should work to decrease the ethnic and religious divides in Syrian society. They should not let themselves be tricked by the government in regard to the minority issue. Assad would sacrifice all the minorities, including the Alawites, if it were necessary to stay in power. His regime is painting itself as a protector of minorities in order to use them as a tool to further its own interests, rather than genuinely promoting minority rights or the unity of Syria.
Assad’s re-election in July would mean the death of prospects for a political solution in Syria. Three years into the conflict, he still considers himself a good candidate for president. Syria does need a president, but it certainly does not need Assad. What it needs is a president truly devoted to the Syrian people and to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. A true president would seek to unify rather than divide, embracing all Syrians in order to rebuild a country that has been destroyed by war.
The election is not a real choice. It is an apparent choice. In the end an illegal election held by an illegal government will result in an illegal president.
This article was first published by Chatham House on 19 March 2014.