Syria concluded its first multi-candidate presidential election in about fifty years on 3 June. The result of the election was a foregone conclusion. The incumbent president, Bashar al-Assad, has won with an announced 88.7 percent of the vote, and has secured another seven-year term for himself as Syria's leader.
However, the significance of the election does not reside in its result, nor the supposed democratic era Assad supporters think it heralds. Instead, the election is significant because it confirms how secure the regime feels about itself and its strategy for confronting the insurgency.
The election is not important because the government does not control large sections of the country and was unable to set up polling booths in rebel-held localities, some of which are just a few kilometres from Damascus. According to UN estimates, nearly half of the total Syrian population is displaced, with about two to three million residing outside of Syria as refugees. Given these factors, it is clear that the requisite conditions of peace and normalcy are palpably absent for the result of these elections to be taken as indicative of the country's mood as a whole.
Also, neither of the two candidates opposing Assad displayed any disagreement with the regime over its manner of dealing with the insurgency. The rebellion and the civil war are the greatest challenges facing Syria. The candidates' agreement with each other over this issue is far more significant than their disagreements over other policy issues. That there is neither a discussion nor diversity of views on how to engage with the opposition and end the war means that the regime is going to continue with its current policy of military confrontation and localized truces.
This does not necessarily mean that the regime is not interested in a political solution. Rather, the election shows that the regime wants a political solution on terms that it finds agreeable; which, above all, and at least for now, include the continuation of Assad presidency's. That is to say, the demands of the western and Gulf-backed opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, for a transitional government to be set up without Assad, have been decisively rejected by the regime.
The regime and its representative team had made the same point earlier in the year, during the UN mediated negotiations known as Geneva II. However the Coalition has not changed its position and it continues to demand Assad's departure as a pre-condition of further talks. The biggest problem with this approach is that the Coalition does not have the military wherewithal to force this demand upon the regime.
The Syrian regime maintains a military upper hand due to its superior weaponry. Altering the balance of power in favour of the opposition requires, minimally, the possession of anti-aircraft missiles. Without such weaponry rebels cannot gain and hold new territory. However, it is precisely such weaponry that the opposition's international backers, especially USA, are refusing to provide them with. Their reasons for doing so relate to their fears over the growing presence of al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Syria and the increased regional and international threat they will present if armed with such technology.
Whether the international powers are correct in their estimate or not, their reasons for withholding full support of the rebels points to a coincidence between their understanding and the regime's description of the conflict. The regime, since the outbreak of protests in 2011, has incessantly described the conflict as a sectarian, foreign funded and al-Qaeda/takfiri-backed terrorist conspiracy. Now that the larger international imagination is converging with the narrative the regime has been pushing over the past three years, in addition to the fact that the insurgency presents no existential military threat, the regime must feel that it is better positioned to proceed with its preferred solution to the crisis.
Therefore, it is entirely understandable, as surprising as it may seem, that the regime decided to go ahead with the election in the midst of a civil war. The election, from the regime's perspective, is not about changing the opposition's view of the regime. Rather, it is about how the regime legitimizes itself with its supporters (both local and foreign) and the messages it sends to those who are more ambivalent about picking sides between the opposition and the regime (which increasingly, given worries over terrorism, includes countries such as Turkey and USA).
Other than being necessitated by constitutional requirements, the election, although not sufficiently representative, serves to consolidate whatever legitimacy the regime claims to possess. Events such as the huge voter turn out at the Syrian embassy in Beirut, even if orchestrated by Hizbullah, give the impression that more Syrians want an end to the war than those who demand Assad's departure.
In other words, the election was the regime's show of confidence in itself and the policies it has been pursuing over the past three years. With these policies unlikely to change, not only can we be sure that Assad will remain at the top, but also that unless the opposition alters its demands, civilians in Syria will not be able to find any imminent respite from all the murderous violence that has plagued their lives over the last three years.