Assad tries to tackle internal crisis before election test

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Syria’s elections, which are to be held in accordance with the country’s 2012 constitution, are seen as an important way for the Syrian president to renew his so-called legitimacy, despite international forces rejecting the organisation of the polls.

DAMASCUS – Syria’s presidential elections will be held within a few months, but prominent figures have yet to announce their candidacies, including President Bashar Assad. The delay by the regime is apparently aimed at resolving the country’s chaotic and confused internal affairs.

Syrian opposition figures claim that Assad will certainly file his candidacy for elections, likely this month. Ahead of this move, the Syrian regime and Russians have been pressing ahead with efforts to ensure a smooth conduct of elections, the results of which they hope will be recognised, regardless of the international community’s stance.

The elections scheduled for mid-year 2021 come in a relatively different context from those that took place in 2014, in which Assad was reelected for another seven year term. In 2014, there was a sharp division between a pro-Assad bloc and the opposition, but this division began to fade in recent years with Assad’s decline in popularity due to deteriorating economic conditions, which plunged more than 80% of the Syrian people into poverty.

Today, popular unrest has broken out in several regions and governorates affiliated with the Syrian president since the outbreak of the crisis in 2011, such as Latakia and Tartous, Sweida in the south and the capital, Damascus. While Damascus residents have not been able to go out and protest due to the increased security presence, rallies have taken place in the three other governorates, albeit unevenly, against suffocating living conditions.

Many Assad loyalists no longer conceal their anger at the regime’s poor handling of the country’s economic situation, which has contributed to the spread of corruption and the emergence of the so-called new war rich who enjoy great security cover and continue to exploit the crisis to accumulate wealth.

Activists note that anger over state mismanagement has prompted the majority of loyalists to punish Assad by boycotting the elections.

The situation is even worse for Assad in areas that he subjugated by force of arms or by implementing fragile settlements, such as the governorates of Daraa in the south and Homs in the centre. In recent days, Daraa has been pressured by the regime, which is threatening to launch military operations against areas within it in an attempt to intimidate the people and quell the rebellion that has begun to spill over and reach the countryside of Quneitra and Damascus.

Daraa residents were the first to revolt against the Assad regime, and they succeeded in loosening his control over the governorate in 2013 before Damascus, with the help of Russia, was able to subjugate it again within the framework of a settlement in which the United States participated. Anger in the province, however, has only grown, especially after the regime violated most of the terms of the agreement and continued dealing with heavy-handed security tactics.

The tension has led to the emergence of armed cells (composed of former opposition fighters) whose presence has alarmingly grown, increasing the regime’s concerns in recent months.

Many enraged youth have also joined the movement, prompting Russia to mediate and try hard to contain the rebellion in the province.

The situation does not seem to favour Assad, especially in light of people’s lack of trust in Moscow as a mediator.

 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma register to cast their vote during the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, on July 19, 2020. (dpa)
 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma register to cast their vote during the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, on July 19, 2020. (DPA)

Activists say the regime is also on the defensive in the governorate of Homs. While it has appeared to be the calmest part of Syria over the past two years, Homs residents have recently begun to increasingly voice criticism of the regime.

While Damascus is trying to restore calm ahead of elections, it has chosen to terrorise and intimidate the people instead of improving their economic situation.

To shape public opinion, the regime is relying on its propaganda machine. In recent weeks, Assad has spent time meeting with about 75 loyalist media professionals to direct them on how to cover the upcoming polls. But in parallel with the regime’s manoeuvres, dissidents have pressed ahead with a call to boycott the elections.

Lawyer Hassan al-Awsad, secretary-general of the Syrian Council for Change, one of three groups representing the Syrian opposition, told The Arab Weekly “the idea of ​​launching a broad campaign calling for a boycott of the elections began quite a while ago, as the concentrated efforts of the Assad regime in this context had to be confronted and thwarted.”

Aswad added, “We started working on promoting this campaign, called ‘No legitimacy to Assad and his elections,’ on January 7, and we started communicating with many Syrian political and civil forces and figures to take part in this national action. After a meeting that included representatives of the Union of Coordinators of the Revolution and the Association of Kurdish Independents, we decided to unify our positions and call for a meeting that includes the largest possible number of political partners.”

The campaign aims to reach all Syrians wherever they are, and it will reach to our people residing in regime-controlled areas to explain to them the importance of boycotting these elections,” said the Daraa-based lawyer.

“The campaign will also address regional, Arab and international public opinion, and it will reach…international bodies and countries through their embassies and foreign missions,” he added.

According to Aswad, the campaign will focus on clarifying why it believes the elections to be illegally structured and how they will ultimately harm Syrians.

He said the elections clearly and explicitly contradict the decisions of Geneva I, Resolutions 2118 and 2254 of the Security Council and resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, stressing that holding elections without taking these resolutions into account will exacerbate Syria’s crisis.

Assad’s difficulties are not limited to areas under his control. Today, there are contacts between the Syrian regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which extend their influence over important parts of the north and east of the country to allow the distribution of ballot boxes, especially in Hasaka districts and municipalities.

Informed sources said that the regime’s moves also included coordination with Lebanon and Jordan to organise elections there. The two countries host thousands of Syrian refugees and the regime is hoping the participation of these refugees will grant legitimacy to the elections. There are more than 7 million Syrian refugees abroad, more than a quarter of which are dispersed in neighbouring countries.

Syria’s elections, which are to be held in accordance with the country’s 2012 constitution, are seen as an important way for the Syrian president to renew his so-called legitimacy, despite international forces rejecting the organisation of the polls.

Written By Sabra Douh

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