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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Bashar al-Assad’s Spectacle of Legitimacy

Bashar al-Assad’s Legitimacy
Syrians waving national flags celebrating in the streets of the capital Damascus President Bashar al-Assad’s fourth term on May 27, 2021. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Mat Nashed

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad demands to be glorified by the citizens he oppresses, not just tolerated. That was the purpose of his re-election last month, which amounted to nothing more than a spectacle of legitimacy.

The farce took place in the war-torn country on May 26, 2021.  Assad and his wife cast their ballots in Douma, a town just outside the capital of Damascus. For many Syrians, Douma epitomizes the death of a popular uprising against the murderous Baathist regime. But for Assad, the town symbolizes his reconquest, and ruthless power over the country.

In 2012, Douma was lost to a violent insurgent group called Jaysh al-Islam. Over the next six years, government forces starved the population, bombed the residents indiscriminately, and deployed chemical weapons which appalled the global community. After committing countless atrocities, the regime finally retook the town in April 2018.

Fast forward to last month when Assad celebrated his re-election after nearly a decade of war. A day after the national vote, the Speaker of Parliament declared Assad the winner with 95 percent of the ballots.

However, the fraudulent results hardly reflect public opinion. In fact, the results distract from the simmering discontent among communities that traditionally support the regime, all of whom are struggling to survive in a battered economy that has pushed millions of people into abject poverty. Many Syrians still voted for Assad to avoid reprisal, which could befall anyone considered an opponent of the regime.

Nevertheless, the most devoted loyalists made no effort to hide the falsification of the results. Many celebrated voting for Assad numerous times, while regime officials claimed that they received more votes for Assad than the number of people that live in government-controlled areas.

In the end, the election spectacle emboldened the Assad regime. Elizabeth Tsurkov, an expert on Syria from Newlines Institute, explains that Assad’s re-election was intended to discourage opponents from rising up again, through convincing Syrians and foreign observers that Assad enjoys more support than he actually does.

In a country where political criticism can invite a death sentence, most Syrians have no idea if the public fawning for Assad reflects his large support base or just society’s collective attempt to conceal their distaste for the regime. For Syrians, it’s impossible to decipher peer behavior during a farce election, thus discouraging them from uprising spontaneously.

This is mainly why most Arab despots are so obsessed with the voter turnout during their re-election. With the outcome already decided, both their domination and legitimacy hinges on the number of people that participate in glorifying the regime.

The same is true for Syria, prompting regional foes hoping for a rapprochement with Damascus to assist Assad. The UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait all permitted Syrians in their countries to participate in the vote. The gesture is indicative of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) interest in mending ties with Syria.

Saudi Arabia, which is the most powerful country in the GCC, has made the latest overtures to Damascus. Back in May, Riyadh sent an intelligence delegation to the Syrian capital to discuss the possibility of resuming diplomatic ties between the two foes. Syria later dispatched a ministerial delegation to Riyadh later that month.

One senior Syrian official, who has close ties with the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and General Intelligence Directorate (GID), said that Riyadh believes times have changed and is now looking to draw closer to Iran by welcoming back Assad to diplomatic circles.

Another official from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that MBS wants to assure Tehran that he is no longer seeking regime change in Syria. Saudi Arabia, he said, is preparing for a post-Arab Spring era. But while Saudi Arabia is inching towards normalization, other GCC states have already repaired ties.

Oman reinstated its ambassador to Damascus in October 2020. Six months later, Syria’s Foreign Minister visited Muscat to bolster diplomatic relations. The UAE, however, was the first GCC country to make a rapprochement with Syria when it reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018.

The Biden administration has not signalled to the GCC that it disproves or supports their normalization with Damascus. But at the moment, the Syrian file appears to be a growing concern for Washington.

Next month, the UN Security Council will have to decide whether to renew an international cross-border mechanism. The resolution allows U.N agencies to bypass regime restrictions and supply aid from Turkey to more than 4 million people in the besieged insurgent-controlled enclave of Idlib. However, Russia has threatened to veto the resolution unless it is able to win some concessions from Washington, presumably a removal or easing of sanctions.

While civilians in Idlib are worst off, about 60 percent of the population in Syria is food-insecure, including traditional strongholds of the regime. If the GCC is not obstructed by threats of sanctions from Washington, they could play a role in providing vital humanitarian aid to Syrians in the country.

In an extensive report for The Century Foundation, Syria expert Sam Heller argues that the aid from the GCC wouldn’t resolve the humanitarian crisis, yet it could still provide minor relief to civilians struggling to feed themselves and their families.

“If U.S friends in, for example, the Gulf want to trade with Syria or contribute humanitarian and economic assistance, the United States should not discourage that or threaten them with sanctions,” Heller writes.

The UAE has already sent shipments of food and medical aid to Damascus, yet much of that relief risks being embezzled by Syria’s crony elites. In any case, Assad’s re-election has rehabilitated the illusion of regime security both at home and abroad. However, the illusion remains just that: an illusion. It won’t shed its pariah status to the west, nor intimidate its population for long unless it mitigates a national hunger crisis.

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Dima Elayache
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