According to the law, presidential elections should have been held in Syria this month, but the Syrian government delayed them in order to announce the procedures that would be used.
A period has now been set aside for prospective candidates to register. In its announcement of the new date for the elections on 26 May, the Syrian government rejected holding the elections according to the agenda of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which is expected to convene very soon.
The announcement of the holding of the elections also rejected any foreign monitoring or link to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a new constitution in Syria followed by presidential elections with international monitoring.
By not linking the presidential elections with the work of the Constitutional Committee, which had it followed its original schedule should by now have drafted a new constitution for Syria, and forging ahead with them instead, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is ignoring the reality on the ground.
A brutal conflict has been raging in the country for over a decade, and this means that millions of people, estimated at half the country’s population by international organisations, cannot participate in the elections as they have fled the country.
The Syrian opposition has decided to boycott the elections, and large parts of the country, by some estimates more than 60 per cent, are not under the control of the regime.
The Syrian Kurds control the northeast of the country, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army the northwest, and the Free Syrian Army the south. Those in control of these areas will not allow the elections to take place.
The regime has been working to obstruct the Constitutional Committee in its efforts to draft a new constitution, and after working for some 18 months it has yet to produce a word. A new constitution would be based on democracy, pluralism and the rotation of power, all things which would automatically mean the end of the incumbent regime.
Under these circumstances, the regime believes it would be best to forge ahead with the elections, while superficially participating in the Constitutional Committee in order to appear compliant with international resolutions.
Moscow, which supports the regime, has separated the work of the Constitutional Committee from the holding of the presidential elections. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the “presidential elections are the affair of the Syrian government, and they are not beholden to the Constitutional Committee’s agenda.”
Abdel-Basset Sida, a former chair of the opposition Syrian National Council, commented that “the Russians are buying time, and so is the regime. They want to hold the elections independent of the possible outcomes of the Constitutional Committee.”
“But the problem will not be solved without an international consensus to aid the Syrian people. First and foremost, this will need the Syrians to reach a consensus among themselves, because it is the fate of their people and their country that is at stake.”
Asked about international election monitors in an interview with the Russian news agency TASS, Syrian Ambassador to Moscow Riyad Haddad said the elections would be held with due consideration for the pandemic.
He said that preparations were underway, but the precise timeline would depend on the pandemic. “The possible spread of the coronavirus is the main deciding factor in the upcoming elections,” he said.
Perhaps Washington’s rejection of the elections if they had been held as originally scheduled under current circumstances and without UN monitors was a factor for the regime and its allies to reconsider when to hold the elections.
It is possible that a decision might still be made to hold the elections later according to different standards or as a result of a deal between Russia and the US.
The Syrian regime is not interested in the formalities of the elections and does not publish realistic figures on voter turnout. In previous elections, boycotted by most Syrians with half the country being either refugees or displaced, fictitious figures were published.
The regime will try to take advantage of the elections to re-establish Al-Assad’s legitimacy as president, but most of those who have been displaced or made refugees by the conflict are unlikely to vote for him, especially given the opposition boycott, US and European disapproval, and international and regional requirements that any elections be free and fair and submit to UN monitoring.
The Syrian opposition insists that the only way to forge ahead with the elections is by pushing the political process in the country forward according to UN Resolution 2254, including the drafting of a new constitution and a transitional phase that is internationally monitored and leads to free and fair elections.
The US and Europe have taken a firm position, especially France, Germany and the EU presidency, and they will reject the elections and their outcome if there is no comprehensive political solution in Syria based on UN Resolution 2254.
Russia has been trying to rally Arab support to keep Al-Assad in power, but it has found reticence about doing so. On a recent tour of the Arab Gulf countries, Lavrov found that Doha and Riyadh linked such a step to reaching a political settlement in Syria that would include the opposition.
Abu Dhabi, however, was open to the idea, according to leaked reports. But the support of a handful of Arab countries will not be enough to push through a decision in the Arab League in Al-Assad’s favour.
Mahmoud Hamza, a Syrian commentator, said that the Syrian regime wants to see “Bashar Al-Assad re-elected and to use this on the world stage. It wants to receive funds for the reconstruction process in the country. But the international community knows that the elections will be a futile farce. The economic situation in areas under regime control is catastrophic, and the regime must consider how it will hold elections under such circumstances.”
The regime controls areas inhabited by around nine million people out of a total of some 24 million, and millions of others live in areas beyond its reach or have been displaced outside Syria. Even the nine million in regime-controlled areas are not all Al-Assad supporters, and the regime will not accept UN or international election-monitoring because it knows that the outcome will not be in its favour.
The Syrian regime is in a delicate position. Postponing the elections further would have meant that it had decided to obstruct a political solution, moving in the opposite direction to the Constitutional Committee, creating new problems with the West, and putting Russia in an awkward position.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly