Syria elections defy the ‘regime change’ mantra

Syria went to polls in government-controlled parts on April 13, the same day peace talks restarted in Geneva on the Syrian conflict. While local opposition groups and Western countries viewed the election as a sham, the government and its allies think that Syrians, and not outsiders, should decide Assad’s fate. True, fresh elections will be held after a new, transitional government is formed in the months ahead. But until then, all propaganda on a “Syria minus Assad’ must stop        

Despite the low voter turnout and limited territorial scope of the recently held parliamentary elections in Syria, their timing — on the day Syrian peace talks were held in Geneva — implies that pro- and anti-Assad parties continue to hold on to their respective positions.

Syria's President Bashar Assad casts his vote next to his wife Asma (centre left) inside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Damascus on April 13

Syria’s President Bashar Assad casts his vote next to his wife Asma (centre left) at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Damascus on April 13

While the election underlined the “popular support” Assad enjoyed in the government-controlled areas and his “right” to stay in power according to his supporters, the West rubbished the event and questioned his legitimacy. Britain and France called it a “flimsy facade” and a “sham”.

Syrian Opposition, which wants the new round of peace talks to focus on “political transition”, said the election was a “meaningless” exercise. According to Assad’s critics, the elections only proved that the leader was in no mood to step down any time soon.

But others said that much like the 2014 elections, the latest polls defied the “regime change” policy of NATO and its Arab allies.

One cannot miss the irony in the Opposition’s rejection of the elections. Such an act does not carry any weight because their representatives holding talks in Geneva have never submitted themselves to the test of an election in any of the Syrian territories under their occupation and control. Their mandate derives from the arms, technical help, and money that flows from Gulf and Western sponsors.

The Syrian government said the election is constitutional and in conformity with the United Nations Security Council resolution which states that the country’s political future must remain in the hands of Syrians, and no one else.

Professor Tim Anderson, who was in Syria to observe the 2014 and recent elections, said: “Repeated outside demands that ‘Assad must go’, or that a Washington-approved executive ‘transition government’ be formed have become meaningless since the military tide turned in the embattled country’s favor.”

So after this turn of the tide, the Syrian government seemed strong enough to prove its political strength.

Although the territorial scope of the election was limited, it does not necessarily imply an absence of voters.

The government-controlled areas have attracted a lot of Syria’s displaced population since the beginning of the conflict. In its 2012 report, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) said: “Syria’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, were seen as safe havens from violence and gradually saw a large influx of IDPs [internally displaced persons] fleeing from conflict zones.”

Damascus controls 80% of the population. That includes 90% of the refugees from areas still under terrorists or the so-called moderate rebel control. For example, 80% of Aleppo’s population is in government-controlled areas. Yet the “democratic West” does not think they should have the right to have their political voices heard at the beginning of the talks.

Some facts and figures reflect the scope of the election and its importance. Almost 7,000 polling booths were opened across the government-controlled areas. Some 11,341 candidates were proposed with 250 to be elected to Parliament, including a number of female candidates.

The territorial spread of the candidates was as follows: Damascus (988), Damascus countryside (817), Aleppo (1,437), Aleppo regions (1,048), Idleb (386), Homs (1,800), Hama (700), Lattakia (1,653), Tartous (634), Deir Ezzor (311), Hasaka (546), Raqqa (197), Daraa (321), Sweida (263) and Quneitra (240).

The West still tried to undermine the election which has put the Syrian opposition in an awkward position with regard to their claims about Assad’s “exit”. Should a popular leader go?  If they continue to insist on Assad’s exit, doesn’t it imply that those who cast their votes recently do not matter at all in the overall Syrian scenario?

For the U.S., the Syrians do not matter.

Before the elections were held, the U.S. state department spokesperson Mark Toner had said: A political process that reflects the desires and will of the Syrian people is what should ultimately decide the future leadership and the future government of Syria.”

 This position, however, underwent a radical change as soon as the elections were held.

Responding to the elections, Toner said the US “would view those elections as not legitimate in the sense that they don’t represent … the will of the Syrian people.”

“So to hold parliamentary elections now, given the current circumstances, given the current conditions in the country, we believe, is at best premature and not representative of the Syrian people,” he said.

While all other parties continue to cling to their position, the recent elections presented a peaceful way of deciding the outstanding question of whether Assad should stay.

Mere propaganda would not serve Western and Gulf interests. On the contrary, elections, if held under a neutral international agency like the UN, can provide a solid answer to the question of Assad’s future.

The Geneva talks need to refocus on the question of holding elections in Syria instead of on whether Assad should stay or not.  Let Syria be as ‘democratic’ as the West itself claims to be.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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