Syria after the elections: Assad victorious?

Assad's "election" and the Syrian quagmire

This post is part of a series on the issues discussed at the ECFR Annual Council Meeting in Rome (12-13 June). You can find more content and audio from the council meeting here

The Syrian presidential election held in early June, and called a farce by the opposition and its Western allies, is a reminder that the Damascus regime is not close to relinquishing power. Quite the opposite, Assad's electoral success with 88.7% of the votes and his new seven-year term underscore his unyielding hold on power, more than three years after the start of the Syrian uprising that has turned into a bloody civil war. Yet can one really speak of a “victory”? The Allawite leader's win was largely a foregone conclusion, with other candidates Hassan Nouri and Maher Hajjar part of the co-opted opposition, voting organised in government-controlled areas, and continued military attacks across the country. More importantly, Assad's so-called victory will not end the conflict that is still raging or allow for a viable transition. Instead, it will likely exacerbate violence on the ground and the regional confrontation around Syria.

In fact, Assad continues to enjoy the support of both Iran (and its Shia allies, including Hezbollah) and Russia, while the United States and the West still back the moderate segment of the rebellion – as opposed to Gulf monarchies closer to its radical elements. The EU joined Washington in condemning the 3 June vote and the regime's unremitting killing. At the same time, Western policies have so far failed to defeat Assad and therefore impose to rethink the contours of what a Syrian transition could look like, if one remains envisageable. Indeed, not only has Assad clung to power, but Syria is plunged into a full-fledged civil war that blurs many of the dynamics on the ground, while serving Damascus' objective to ensure its survival at any cost. Through elections and not a referendum like in the past, Assad looked for legitimacy – certainly not democratic, but one of pure domination.

In this respect, it is to be feared that the very recent takeover of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Mosul and other Iraqi cities will only further reinforce Assad's anti-terrorist narrative and his portrayal of the larger Syrian opposition as a crowd of terrorists threatening civilians and unable to govern. Concerns that the jihadists might impose themselves in Syria could as well increase domestic support for the regime, now seen by some as the lesser evil. This, of course, will not solve the Syrian quagmire.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.