What Syria's President Seeks From A Not-So-Democratic Election

Jun 2, 2014
Originally published on June 2, 2014 5:27 pm

The Turkish border city of Gaziantep becomes more Syrian by the day. New waves of refugees have arrived since January. In the market, Syrian craftsmen hammer out copper pots and plates, as they did back home in Aleppo.

"We left to save our children," says Ali Abu Hassan. "The bombs come every day."

Back in Syria, President Bashar Assad is universally expected to win in Tuesday's election, a sign to Hassan and his family that they should expect an indefinite stay in Turkey alongside the swelling ranks of refugees. Turkish officials have now floated a proposal for an eight-year residency permit for Syrians, replacing the one-year card.

Last year, Turkey was convinced Assad would go soon. But no one in Turkey is saying that now. All of Syria's neighbors are adjusting policy to the new timeline.

The Syrian ballot is taking place during a civil war that's in its fourth year and still raging.

Assad won his two previous seven-year presidential terms facing no competition. This time, there are two other names on the ballot, but they are little-known and have no chance. In addition, the voting is only taking place in areas that the Assad regime controls.

The election has galvanized international attention, says Josh Landis, a longtime Syria analyst who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. But it is more a message than a vote, to friends and foes alike, he says.

"It has nothing to do with democracy," Landis says. "This is about power, and in showing your enemies that you can make everybody under your control line up and kiss your hand."

"It's a fight to the death between Syria's religious minorities and the Sunni majority," Landis adds. Assad is a member of the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they make up a little more than 10 percent of the Syrian population.

The Alawites "feel they could be pushed out. It doesn't matter if Assad is presiding over a broken country," Landis says.

Assad Still Has Allies

The vote comes as Assad weathers the storm with the help of strong allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. His allies also support the election. Russia is sending election monitors.

In recent weeks, the city of Homs, which represented the heart of the uprising, was retaken by Assad's army. The election in Homs is a propaganda coup for a regime pledging security and stability.

But can the regime deliver?

Analyst Brian Katulis says that's not likely. After a recent research trip to the region, he says Syria, by all measures, is a failed state.

"It's a very broken country, and it is probably the most disastrous situation the whole world is facing, in terms of the human costs. So it's not a great prize," says Katulis, of the Center for American Progress.

At an opposition radio station in Gaziantep, Syrian activists are working on songs and reports to broadcast into Syria on election day. There are more than a dozen opposition media outlets supported by the Turks and funded by Western donors, including the United States. The message is, "Don't vote out of fear."

But war is more the focus here than the vote. Assad's allies still support a military victory as the regime gains more territory than it loses. That doesn't mean an Assad military victory, however, says Noah Bonsey, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. Overall, the battlefield remains a stalemate, he says.

"The regime is not prepared, and perhaps it's not even capable of making the concessions necessary that would enable it to cash in politically on its military progress," he says.

Large parts of the country are in ruins, the economic losses are catastrophic, and pro-Assad rallies do not change the facts on the ground, he says.

"After all the media attention has died down, the elections will be over but the war will go on," he adds.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Tomorrow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win reelection. Outside of Syria that election has been widely condemned. The country is torn apart by civil war and they're not voting in rebel held areas. But Assad will likely claim a mandate to rule as he sees fit. NPR's Deborah Amos went to the city of Gaziantep, to get a regional view of the vote. It's in Turkey near the Syrian border.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This Turkish border city becomes more Syrian by the day. New waves of refugees have arrived since January. In the market, Syrian craftsmen hammer out pots and plates, as they did back home in Aleppo.

ALI ABU HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: We left to save our children, says Ali Abu Hassan. The bombs came every day, he cries. For Hassan, Assad's expected win is a sign his stay in Turkey is now indefinite. Turkish officials have floated a proposal for an eight year residency permit for Syrians, replacing the old one year card. Last year, Turkey was convinced Assad would go soon. No one here is saying that now. All of Syria's neighbors are adjusting to the long-term stay of refugees. The election has galvanized international attention, says Josh Landis, a long time Syrian analyst. But it's more a message than a vote, to friends and foes alike.

JOSH LANDIS: This has nothing to do with democracy, this is about power and showing your enemy that you can make everybody under your control lineup and kiss your hand.

AMOS: The vote comes as Assad has weathered the revolutionary storm. With the help of strong allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah - the Lebanese militant group. In recent weeks, the city of Homs, that represented the heart of the revolution, was retaken by Assad's army. The election there is a propaganda coup for a regime offering security and stability. But can the regime deliver? Analyst Brian Katulis says that's not likely. After a recent research trip to the region, he says Syria, by all measures, is a failed state.

BRIAN KATULIS: It's a very broken country. And it is probably the most disastrous situation the whole world is facing right now in terms of the human costs. So, it's not a great prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: Here at an opposition radio station, activists are working on songs and reports to broadcast into Syria on election day. There are more than a dozen opposition media outlets supported by the Turks and funded by Western donors, including the U.S. The message is don't vote out of fear. But war is more the focus here. Regime allies still support a military win, as the regime gains more territory than it loses. But Noah Bonsey, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says that doesn't mean a victory. The battlefield remains a stalemate, he says.

NOAH BONSEY: The regime is not prepared and perhaps is not even capable of making the concessions necessary that would enable it to cash in politically on its military progress.

AMOS: The election has closed the door on a diplomatic solution. The U.N. negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned after the vote was announced. Large parts of the country are in ruins, the economic loss is catastrophic. Pro-Assad rallies do not change the facts on the ground, says Bonsey.

BONSEY: After all the media fuss has died down, we'll have a war that looks pretty much exactly the same as it did on June 2, the day before the election.

AMOS: A war that has spilled across every border with Syria, with the end of this conflict pushed further down the road. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.