Despite the acute political and social crisis that Syria has been enduring since the start of the revolution in March 2011, and despite the tragic humanitarian consequences of the ongoing military conflict in the country, the Syrian regime held presidential elections on June 3 in which three candidates, including President Bashar al-Assad, participated.
The regime and its regional and international allies attempted to promote the elections as the first “pluralist” elections to take place in Syria in more than half a century, claiming that the presidential contest was the “fruit” of political and constitutional reforms undertaken by the regime, which were “crowned” by the promulgation of the new constitution in 2012. Nevertheless, the United Nations rejected these elections, insisting that they “undermine the efforts in search of a political solution in Syria”. The United States, the European Union, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and others also rejected the elections, with some describing the Syrian regime’s call for the people to vote as a “charade” and a contest “whose results are known beforehand”. The Syrian opposition, with all its different groups and factions, even those described as being “conciliatory” toward the regime, agreed to reject and boycott the elections, dubbing them as “illegitimate”.
International and regional opposition to the elections was prompted by the forced exclusion of half of the Syrian people from participating in the electoral contest due to the circumstances of the war and the ensuing mass displacement, or because the elections were supervised by a regime that lacks legitimacy and is stained with the blood of its people. Additionally, the holding of elections amid a sharp political and social crisis and an ongoing military conflict signifies the deepening and the perpetuation of the struggle, and ultimately eliminates all chances for a political solution.
The Presidential Elections and International Initiatives for a Solution in Syria
The political initiatives for the resolution of the Syrian crisis—issued prior to the Geneva conference on June 30, 3012, the first Arab initiative on September 10, 2011, the second Arab initiative on January 22, 2012, and the Kofi Anan plan—made the holding of presidential elections conditional on a halt to violence, the launching of political and societal dialogue, and the forming of a national unity government to oversee the elections. However, with the persistence of the crisis and the escalation of the regime’s violence, the international and regional forces that are active in the Syrian case reached the “Geneva-1” communiqué, which calls for a transitional governing body that would be able to exercise full executive powers. This announcement, which reflected an agreement among the various parties involved, implies that the presidential elections would constitute the “end” of the transitional stage and that the announcement and organization of these elections would fall within the tasks of the transitional body that is to be formed.
Because of its weak position on the battlefield and the ascendancy of the opposition forces, the regime, under international and regional pressures, continually “welcomed” the Geneva-1 communiqué in its official discourse, without openly agreeing to it. It avoided addressing the question of presidential elections and the possibility that al-Assad may run as candidate for another presidential mandate. The 2012 constitution that was approved, however, gives Assad the right to run for two more presidential cycles.
Iran, which welcomed Kofi Annan’s plan, did not expressly call for political transition and for al-Assad stepping down and refused to agree to the “Geneva-1” communiqué because it clearly called for the formation of “a transitional governing body” with full executive powers. In an attempt to avoid being excluded from a prospective political solution by new international understandings, Iran launched a six-point political initiative on December 16, 2012 that called in its third article for “the effectuation of a comprehensive national dialogue that prepares the ground for the formation of a transitional government to organize parliamentary elections and a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, in addition to allowing for the presidential elections to be held at their specified date”.
Iran sought to provide the appropriate circumstances to make this initiative “executable” or “worthy of discussion” among the influential international parties engaged in the Syrian crisis. Thus, it indirectly intervened militarily through loyal parties and militias, such as Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias, in order to shift the situation on the field to the regime’s benefit. Since the al-Qusair battle in June 2013, Iran became the main overseer of the conduct of military operations in Syria, while the role of the Syrian army became limited to providing arms to the Tehran-affiliated militias. In parallel to the direct military role, Iran also played an important diplomatic role, contributing to the success of the Russian initiative in September 2013, which led to an agreement about handing over Syrian chemical arsenal, with the objective of preventing a punitive military strike against the regime after it used chemical weapons in the Ghouta neighborhood of Damascus in August 2013.
With the change in the military balance, the receding of the possibility of a military strike being directed against the regime, and the opening up of the international community to the regime in order to fulfill the chemical weapons deal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began to “insinuate” that he might run in the presidential elections scheduled for 2014 during his interviews with the Arab and Western media in late 2013, linking his decision to the people’s demands. Even so, the regime was not in a position that could permit it to officially declare its intention to hold the elections, and the UN Security Council resolution no. 2118 clearly indicated the necessity of establishing a transitional governing body in accordance with the “Geneva-1” communiqué, in addition to calling for a new international conference in Geneva for the resolution of the Syrian crisis.
The Syrian regime was forced, under Russian pressure, to attend the “Geneva II” conference while Iran, again, refused, to acknowledge the “Geneva I” communiqué, leading to its exclusion from the conference. The regime was strengthened by Iranian military and political support, so it acted to sabotage the efforts of the Arab and international mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, to launch a credible process of negotiations. Iran also exploited the failure of “Geneva-2” and the allies of the Syrian opposition refrained from taking serious steps to re-open the path for a political solution or change the balance of forces on the ground. Thus, Iran was able to take advantage of this situation to emphasize its own political initiative, which is backed by the military advances achieved with the support of Iran’s militias. Since the beginning of March 2014, the tone of the Iranian political rhetoric escalated, indicating that Iran has become the main actor in the Syrian crisis. This state of affairs was affirmed during both the battle of Yabrud in the Qalamun Mountains and the process of negotiations in Old Homs; Tehran prevented the Syrian army from participating in the takeover of Yabrud, limiting the mission to the forces of Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias, such as the “Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas” militia and others. In Old Homs, moreover, Iran was the sole party negotiating with the Islamic Front in order to withdraw the opposition fighters from the city in exchange for the release of Iranian captives in Aleppo, and for supplying the Shiite towns of Nubbul and al-Zahra (Aleppo countryside) with food and aid. In support of the Iranian desire to hold the presidential elections at their specified date, the Syrian parliament approved the election law on March 13, 2014, opening the way for al-Assad to announce his official candidature on April 28, 2014.
This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version, click here.