As Syria’s civil war rumbles on unabated, President Bashar al-Assad looks more set to consolidate his leadership than heed calls to step aside.
Assad, 48, has said there’s no reason why he shouldn’t seek a third term as president in an election that’s unlikely to be much of a contest. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Syrians will pressure him to stand and government-orchestrated pro-Assad rallies meant to highlight the president’s popularity have been taking place regularly for the past few months.
Opponents say running for re-election would destroy any chance of a political settlement at Geneva peace talks and prolong violence that has killed at least 150,000 people and displaced another 9 million. Though a date for the election hasn’t been officially announced, there’s every indication he will defy international demands for him to depart, underscoring the impotence of the U.S. and European allies in trying to bring an end to three years of bloodshed.
“For those who need confirmation that the Assad regime is not interested in the Geneva negotiating process this would be it,” said Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington. He predicted another win for Assad in “the high 90s.”
In power since succeeding his father in 2000, Assad’s second seven-year term ends on July 17. Assad took over from Hafez, a former military commander who had been president since 1971. He won an additional seven-year term in 2007 with 98 percent of the vote. He was the only candidate.
“We don’t want President Assad to hesitate for one second about standing,” Safwan al-Qodsi, whose Arab Socialist Union Party is allied with Assad’s Baath party, said by phone from Damascus. “Our conviction can be summed up in one sentence: There’s no one else other than Bashar al-Assad.”
The party has highlighted that message in its al-Mithaq newspaper and plans to stress during visits by its senior leadership to regional offices and incorporate support for Assad in the logo it will adopt closer to the vote.
An electoral law approved by parliament last month says the vote must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s term ends and allows other candidates to run. If adhered to, that would mean an election must take place no later than mid-May. Zoubi, the information minister, told Al-Manar TV yesterday that the elections will be on time and the government will not allow “any delay for whatever reason.”
The law effectively prevents opposition members in exile to stand because it stipulates the candidates must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and can have no other citizenship.
Asked in January if he would run, Assad told Agence France-Presse that he could see “no reason why I shouldn’t stand.” And if “there is public desire and a public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election,” he added. “In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant.”
Assad said yesterday that attempts to sully the image of his ruling Baath party has made it stronger, state-run SANA news agency said. “When we are strong inside, all that happens or is plotted abroad is meaningless,” Assad said in a meeting with members of the party’s leadership in Damascus.
Though he has lost large swathes of the country to the rebels, Assad has hung on to power longer than any of the four Arab leaders toppled by mass protests in 2011.
Robert Ford, who recently stepped down as U.S. envoy to Syria, said on March 20 Assad is not likely to go away anytime soon. The elections will be held in government-controlled areas, which Ford estimated at about a quarter of the country.
“It is hard to imagine that Assad is going in the short term, and even in the medium term, to lose control of the area between Aleppo south to Damascus and then over to the coast,” Ford said at the event organized by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Ford said three reasons have enabled Assad to survive: the inability of the opposition to assure the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs that it won’t be threatened, external support including Russian and Iranian financing and arms supplies and a “certain unity and coherence” within the Assad regime the opposition lacks.
Former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who visited Assad recently, said the Syrian president told him the “active phase of warfare in Syria will be finished within a year,” according to the Russian news service Itar-Tass.
The negotiations in Geneva have foundered before they properly took off, with both sides refusing to agree even on the agenda let alone a road map for peace.
Standing for another term would sound the “death knell” for the talks, said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition. It would be “a message from Bashar al-Assad that he believes in a military, and not a political solution,” said Badr Jamous, secretary-general of the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition.
Monzer Akbik, the coalition’s chief of staff, said his group won’t field any candidates in the vote.
“These are not elections,” he said. “Reform will come from changing the regime and not through it.”