The Presidential Election in Syria and its Possible Political Implications

On April 15, the Speaker of the People’s Assembly, Hammouda al-Sabbagh, announced that presidential elections in Syria would be held on May 26 and called for candidates to submit their applications to the Supreme Court. Following the announcement, various Syrian opposition entities announced that they would not recognize the election and called it a sham. Turkey and several western countries similarly announced that they would not recognize the election’s results and that it could not be a part of the political transition agreed upon on the UN Security Resolution 2245. By May 3, the Speaker announced the names of the candidates running in the election.

New election, new faces but the same regime

The profile of the two current candidates challenging Bashar al-Assad in the upcoming election shows that the process is nothing but a mere charade, and the so-called presidential election is no different than previous elections. Abdullah Abdullah, who will challenge Assad in the election, is a former Minister of State from the Socialist Unionist Party allied with the Baath Party in the National Progressive Front, while Mahmoud Mer’ai is the secretary of the National Democratic Action Authority, one of the internal opposition platforms. Both candidates are incredibly similar to the previous candidates in the 2014 election, Hassan al-Nouri, and Maher Hajjar, who were both members of the internal opposition and the People’s Assembly. Despite Mer’ai addressing the issue of political detainees in his election program, the first time the issue is being discussed publicly in regime-held areas after years of official denial and apathy from the so-called “internal opposition,” it is clear that the regime followed the same plan of the 2014 election in choosing candidates who cannot pose any future danger in terms of public support or gaining influence after the election. That said, choosing individuals who are members of other parties and internal opposition may help create the resemblance of fair elections, which is part of the push towards the Syrian’s re-legitimatization in the eyes of the international community. For Russia, this election is similar to elections in other countries it is directly involved in, such as East Ukraine and Abkhazia, in order to delude the international community that these are sovereign, democratic countries.   

The Election’s Implications within Syria

The election will not bear major repercussions inside Syria, as the current election is taking place in light of an unprecedented economic crisis accompanied by the rising cost of living and a third COVID-19 pandemic wave. In the first three months, the crisis reached stifling levels due to the  Syrian pound’s decline and a fuel crisis that angered citizens. However, the crisis improved at the beginning of April and may continue at this level even after the elections. The regime is highly likely to try to delude citizens that this slight improvement is the beginning of the crisis’s resolution after “victory over the conspiracy,” as per the regime’s rhetoric. Bashar al-Assad may make changes in ministerial positions to appoint some figures from the internal opposition in secondary ministries and hold dialogue with some of the internal opposition factions.

The region of south Syria (Daraa, Quneitra, and As-Suwayda) enjoys a degree of independence compared to the rest of the regime-controlled areas. While a reconciliation agreement between the regime and the opposition factions in Daraa and Quneitra was signed in July 2018, the deteriorating security situation and assassinations, in addition to the regime’s ongoing violations, have increased the local population’s anger. Several local leaderships in the Daraa governorate have expressed their rejection of the presidential elections, to the point of almost preventing the establishment of polling stations by force. Additionally, As-Suwayda governorate is experiencing an escalation of tension with the Fifth Corps over exchanged kidnapping, and seizure of farmers’ lands. This is in addition to the security services’ violations and Hezbollah smuggling drugs through the governorate to Jordan, pushing some local factions to reject the elections and prevent electoral activities. Any attempt to prevent future elections in Daraa and As-Suwayda will provide the regime with an excuse to launch limited military operations to fully regain control of southern Syria.

As regards outside Syria, the fact that Syrians, especially in countries of asylum, may turn out to vote in the elections will give an opportunity for European anti-refugee parties, most of which have close relations with Russia, to push the narrative that it is time to normalize ​​relations with the regime and formally recognize it as a safe point of return for Syrians. In some ways, this process is already occurring, such as in Denmark

Additionally, Russia will also utilize the elections to take further steps at the Security Council as part of its plan to re-legitimize the Syrian regime before the international community, starting with the upcoming debate and voting on the resolution on cross-border aid authorization due to expire on July 10th.  Russia is expected to impose more restrictions on the entry of UN aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib, and will possibly introduce in the negotiations over the resolution a demand for commercial crossings to be opened between the regime and the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo’s northern countryside. These entry-points are of great economic importance to the regime as they allow goods to enter the regime-controlled areas for export and contribute to raising the regime’s reserve of foreign currencies.

The Election’s Implications on Syrian-Turkish Relations

The announcement by former United States (US) President Trump of the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and the Turkey-led Operation Peace Spring contributed to an increase in the pace of negotiations between the PYD-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria\Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian regime under Russian auspices. However, with Biden’s arrival to the White House and expectations that US policy in Syria regarding troops’ withdrawal may soon change, both negotiations and the proposed coordination between the two sides ceased. Even after the elections, the possibility of resumption of communication between the Turkish government and the Assad regime remains weak, despite Russia’s interest in such re-engagement. In Syria, Turkey considers the existence of the Democratic Union Party (PYD/SDF) to be the most important threat to its national security. However, it is aware that the Syrian regime is not a powerful ally in this regard, given the fact that the regime does not have any influence or authority over the PYD that it can use to bargain with Turkey, as shown by the wheat and oil crises between the two sides. On the other hand, the regime itself knows that it is unable to provide any sort of assistance or support on the ground to keep the SDF away from Turkish borders due to its weak military forces and the American support for the SDF, which was evident in the recent clashes in the al-Tay neighborhood in Qamishli. Turkey is aware that it has a challenging round of negotiations with Russia after the presidential election concerning Idlib-related M4 road, joint patrols, and the reopening of commercial crossings with regime-controlled areas. Nonetheless, the regime’s weakness will not allow it to affect future negotiations.

The Election’s Implications in the Arab world

While the elections may not have a significant impact on relations between Western countries and Syria, they may instead mark a fundamental change in relations within the Arab League. During his visit to the region last March, the Russian Foreign Minister made a statement about the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League. In early May, the British Guardian newspaper published a report saying that Saudi intelligence chief Khaled Al-Hemaidan traveled to Damascus and met with his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk, the first meeting of officials since 2011. This move comes with the return of negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal and the Saudi-Iranian talks under Iraqi auspices. It appears that Saudi Arabia may become open to restore relations with the regime at a low level despite the official Saudi denial of the meeting. Saudi Arabia considers restoring its relationship with the Assad regime as an opportunity to compete with Iran’s influence inside Syria and may start engaging with the regime on small issues such as Hajj, the return of direct flights and reopening consulates without appointing ambassadors to keep the diplomatic relation at a minimum. However, Saudi Arabia knows that the regime will not abandon Iran, and therefore the attempt to gain influence on the ground is still weak. The crisis in Lebanon remains important to Saudi Arabia, and engagement with the regime may contribute to reaching a solution in Lebanon. However, Saudi Arabia knows that it does not hold many cards that it can use to push the regime to reach a solution in Lebanon. On the one hand, providing direct financial support to the regime will likely be vetoed by the USA, but on the other hand, allowing Saudi companies to participate in the Syrian economy remains a strong asset in the hands of the Saudi Arabia, which has also been proven recently with Saudi businessmen investing in Syria.

The regime itself acknowledges that restoring relations with Saudi Arabia may constitute an essential boost within the broader Russian campaign to re-legitimize the regime. Syria’s return to sitting at the table in regional negotiations on Lebanon is evidence that the regime too still holds important cards in the region, and not just Iran and Russia. The move will also economically benefit the regime, as it relies on exports of food products to the Gulf countries. At the moment, these exports remain at the mercy of Jordan’s decisions regarding the movement of the Nasib-Jaber crossing. Therefore, any agreement with Saudi Arabia may finally be a solution to this issue and ensure the continuation and increase of exports.

The return of relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria may push other countries to normalize relations with the regime. Arab relations with Syria after 2011 went through several stages, from attempting to resolve the conflict to full support of the opposition and gradually stepping out from the scene. In late 2018, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced the reopening of their embassies in Damascus without appointing ambassadors, as doing so would have been seen as a sign of complete recognition of the regime. Preparation for the return of relations with the regime by the UAE began with the reopening of the embassy, ​​followed by a phone call between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Bashar al-Assad in March 2020 in which bin Zayed said that he discussed developments in the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and confirmed the UAE’s support for the Syrian people. Other countries have previously taken limited normalization steps, such as Oman when the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad visited the Sultanate last March and when former Sudanese president al-Bashir visited Syria in December 2018. It is most likely that any overt steps taken toward normalization by Saudi Arabia will push countries to further normalize with Syria, especially countries that already see the regime as an ally against Turkey, such as Egypt.

Regarding the Arab League, the decision to reinstate Syria’s seat, which has been vacant since 2012, will require a majority of votes, and at the moment, Qatar seems to be the only country that may object to this. However, any institutional step within the Arab League seems premature, especially after the Secretary-General of the Arab League stated that there had not been any changes that may contribute to allowing Syria to be reinstated in the League. Nevertheless, the regime’s return to the Arab League would mean participation in formulating future decisions on Arab issues and the return of development projects in addition to the economic benefits from the joint investments of organizations affiliated with the Arab League.