By Prem Shankar Jha
14 June, 2014
Today, as I write, Syrians are queuing to vote in the most extraordinary election any democratic country has ever held. President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron hand for 46 years, is facing re-election, and this time, he is not contesting unopposed. Running against him are two other candidates, former communist and current Member of Parliament Maher al-Hajjar, and businessman Hassan al-Nouri. The chances of President Assad being defeated are remote, but when the voting is over, Syria will have completed an epic transition from a secular but strongly authoritarian State into a fledgling but genuine, multi-party democracy.
This transition will be unique in the annals of democracy because it is being completed in the teeth of one of the most prolonged, and murderous, civil wars in human history. According to the anti-Assad, London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in three years and two months since it began in March 2011, this externally supported uprising has claimed the lives of 62,000 Syrian soldiers and militia, and 80,836 civilians. The Observatory now conceded that a large number of the civilians have been killed not by Assad’s forces but by the insurgents. Between seven and nine million of Syria’s 23 million people have become refugees, and the nation’s roads and ports, its industry, and its all-important oil wells and pipelines have been destroyed. To get an idea of the scale of this senseless murder, one needs to compare this with American losses in Afghanistan. By the end of October 2012, it had lost just over 2,000 soldiers.
In recent decades, no army has withstood the onslaught that the Syrian Army has had to face and not cracked. But in Syria, the opposite has taken place. A trickle of desertions from the Syrian Army to the rebels, in 2011 and 2012, dried up by the end of the latter year. Western analysts, dutifully parroted by the international media, ascribe this to the fanatical loyalty of Assad’s Alawites who are fighting to hold on to power and save their lives, at any cost. But the fact is that 90 percent of the Syrian Army are Sunnis, and the scale of Jihadi attacks is now so vast that it has been impossible to keep the main body of the army out of the war.
But it is not the army alone that has stood firm. The Syrian people, too, are looking to this election as a way to end the bloody war that has drained the lifeblood of the country. They see it as an essential step towards national reconciliation.
Although the West has justified its support for the rebels on the pretext of supporting democracy, none of these developments has been to the West’s liking. “Assad’s staged elections are a farce,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry, after a Friends of Syria meeting. “They are an insult. They are a fraud on democracy, on the Syrian people and on the world.”
The West’s allergy to any democratisation in Syria that is not modulated by itself and its Sunni Arab friends is not new.
This has been the case since 26 February 2012, when, in the middle of an increasingly vicious civil war, Assad held a referendum designed to give Syria a new, democratic Constitution. The Constitution formally ended one-party rule, mandated a fresh election within three months of its ratification and severely curbed the powers of the presidency. Western leaders dismissed it as a sham and spared no invective to belittle its significance.
No sooner had Assad announced the date of the referendum than Anas al-Abdah, head of the London-based and Turkey- sponsored Movement for Justice and Democracy, dismissed it as an “attempt to split Syrian society and to show its allies, especially the Russians, they are doing something about reforms”. “On the day of this referendum,” he predicted, “there will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Syrians marching for the downfall of the regime.”
Only hours later, US President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, also rubbished it, saying: “It is actually quite laughable. It makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.” On referendum day, even before all the votes had been cast, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, condemned it as “a phony referendum, (that was) going to be used by Assad to justify what he is doing”. The then German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, dismissed it as “nothing more than a farce”. British Foreign Minister William Hague poured scorn on the exercise: “To open polling stations but continue to open fire on the civilians of the country… has no credibility in the eyes of the world.”
The international media joined in the chorus. But eight million Syrians, out of an electorate of 14 million, chose to vote, and 89 percent of them endorsed the new Constitution. No one marched for the downfall of the regime. Parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May, and for the first time, more than a dozen political parties entered the fray. Syria got its first democratically elected government.
Had the West really supported the war on Syria to promote democracy, it should have at least accorded this change a cautious welcome. But instead, it has not changed its tune by a single note.
In a perceptive article written for Counterpunch, a widely read online journal published in the US, Rick Stering, a founding member of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, who visited Damascus, Homs and Lattakia in April as part of an international peace pilgrimage, asks, “Why are Kerry and the Friends (of Syria) so fearful of Syrian elections? If they are such a farce, then much of the public will not participate in them. If the vote is seen by the public as meaningless, then the turnout will be very low, such as in Egypt.”
He ascribes this to intense lobbying by various interest groups in the US. “Another group afraid of the elections is the Syrian American Council. This well-funded lobby group claims to represent Syrian-Americans. They have launched a Twitter and Facebook campaign decrying the ‘Blood Election’. They have professional marketing and public relations, paid staff and support from neo-con and Zionist interventionists in (the US) Congress.”
The West’s fear of successful elections arises, as Sterling points out, from the awareness that their real support across the US is thin. A high turnout in the elections will provide irrefutable proof that democracy is taking root in Syria. It will make the position that the West has taken along with its Sunni Arab allies and Turkey, that there can be no ceasefire until Assad surrenders power and leaves the country, impossible to maintain. This adamant opposition to any transition while Assad remained in power has forced first former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and last month his successor Lakhdar Brahimi, to resign from their post as the UN’s special envoy for Syria.
But the pretence that these elections would be a farce had become more and more difficult to maintain, even before Election Day. For under the new Constitution, Syrians abroad were allowed to vote and they have been doing this in the teeth of every obstacle that the West could think of putting up. “France, Germany, Belgium and the Gulf States have all prohibited voting in the Syrian election. Syrian embassies in the US and Canada have been closed, removing the chance for Syrians living there to vote. But this has not prevented many from taking extraordinary measures to cast their vote,” says Sterling.
The reason Sterling points out is that “many Syrians, both inside and outside the country, see voting in this election as a sign of support for their homeland at this difficult time. Voting by Syrians living abroad has already begun, with voting on 28 May in Lebanon, Jordan and a few other countries. The turnout in Beirut was massive, with tens of thousands of people marching, chanting and singing through the avenue and along the highway to the Syrian embassy compound east of the city centre. Voting in Beirut was extended due to the huge turnout. This is in ironic contrast with Egypt, where the government is desperately extending the voting hours and days, trying to boost the voting turnout.”