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PoliticsMiddle East

Syria's election guarantees 1 thing — Bashar Assad will win

May 26, 2021

There are no prizes for guessing who will win Syria's up-coming election this week. But will Russia and Iran have the deciding vote?

A handout picture shows Syrian President Bashar Assad being met by local workers during a visit to the industrial area of Syria's west-central town of Hisya
To encourage disenchanted loyalists, Assad reportedly offered interest-free loans and one-off grants to state employeesImage: Sana/AFP

Despite the theatrics, the winner of Syria's presidential election on Wednesday will come as no surprise. President Bashar Assad is set to be reelected for a fourth seven-year term. 

A record 51 applicants put their name forward for the top job, but the country's Supreme Constitutional Court ruled only three candidates were eligible to run for president: former deputy cabinet minister Abdullah Salloum Adbullah, Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, the head of a small, government-approved opposition party, and Bashar Assad, who has ruled the country since the death of his father in 2000.

Since Monday, thousands of people across numerous cities have reportedly taken to bombed streets in support of the man whose family has ruled the Middle East nation for the past five decades.

Students in Homs wave national flags in support of the upcoming presidential election
Students in Homs wave national flags in support of the upcoming presidential electionImage: Sana/REUTERS

Despite masses of cheering people carrying posters adorned with Assad's face and waving the nation's flag, this election falls foul of internationally recognized election standards.

"These elections are aimed at the West, taking the pattern of Western-style elections in one way or the other to give an 'I am like you' message," Maan Abdul Salam, head of the Syrian think-tank ETANA, told the Reuters news agency.

But the international community has touted Wednesday's election as a farce, as the country has so-far failed to implement the UNs 2015 resolution which sought to bring peace to the country following the Arab Spring which swept across the region and with that free and fair elections held under UN supervision.

Nor has the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee — which disbanded in January 2021 due to lack of progress — managed to achieve its mandate of attaining peace in the country and the adoption of a new constitution. 

However, between the end of the UN-initiative in January and the May election, little has changed. "The UN is not involved in this election and has no mandate to be," Jenifer Fenton, spokesperson for the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told DW ahead of the vote. 

In the days before this week's ballot, Iran — a military ally — sent a delegation to the capital, Damascus, to monitor the polls and offer some semblance of a free and fair election.

To put things into perspetive, the last election — in 2014 — saw Assad secure almost 89% of the vote, with turnout at more than 73%. Back then, he had two opponents. International observers dismissed the vote then as a sham, and this election is set to be no different. 

Syria's map shows which parts are government-controlled
Assad controls over two-thirds of the country, however, residents in the northeast and west are not eligible to vote

Russia could derail the vote

Syria's two biggest allies since 2015, Russia — which has sent assistance in the form of warplanes when the regimes military might was at its weakest point in the fourth year of the country's civil war — and Iran — whose support included fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group backed by Tehran.

"The reelection of Assad should not be seen as a sign of strength of Assad himself, but rather as a sign of strength of Russia, as well as of Russia and Iran taking advantage of the relative inaction on the part of the West to try to push the conflict towards a resolution," Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, told DW.

Winning or losing Wednesday's vote is in Russia's hands, Khatib remarked. "Had Russia not wanted Assad to be reelected, it could have derailed the election." Having the 55-year-old in power is serving Moscow's interests, "however, further down the line, if there was ever a deal made on the Syrian conflict that involves compromises on Russia's part ... Russia would be okay with seeing Assad go," Khatib added.

Syrians gather in the capital Damascus during President Bashar Assad's campaign prior to the election on Wednesday
Syrians gathered in Damascus during Assad's presidential campaign Image: Louai Beshara/AFP

Reigniting regional ties

Assad is all too aware he will one day need to resume ties with regional partners. 

Egypt is already in favor of Syria's readmission to the Arab League — which was suspended in November 2011 over its failure to end the bloodshed — while the United Arab Emirates reopened their embassy in Damascus in 2018 and Oman reappointed its envoy to Syria late last year. 

"There is a desire to move towards normalization, to try and bring Syria back into the Arab fold and dilute Iranian and Turkish regional influence," Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. However, given the current US sanctions, it does not seem likely that more tangible agreements are realistic anytime soon.

For the population of around 18 million — 11 million of which are thought to have been driven from their homes or killed in the conflict — the situation will not get easier any time soon, regardless of the election's outcome. 

Syrians are stuck waiting for the conflict to end and if and when that happens, international support to rebuild the country.

Matthias von Hein contributed to this article.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa