Among the many uncertainties engulfing Syria, which marked a decade of a gruelling civil war, foreign interventions, the rise and fall of Daesh, the killing and disappearance of hundreds of thousands, massive destruction of cities and towns, allegations of war crimes and displacement of millions, one thing is for sure: The 55-year-old, former eye doctor and scion of the Assad dynasty is slated to win a fourth seven-year term as president in the May 26 elections.
For most of the world it is yet another sham election; extending the rule of Bashar Al Assad who took over from his father, Hafez Al Assad, in 2000. The young and western educated ophthalmologist ushered in a wave of optimism, promising to launch a new chapter of openness and reforms. But a year after the “Damascus Spring” there was a backlash. Critics, intellectuals and reformers were arrested and a dark cloud hovered over the country.
Whether Assad was forced to back down by the so-called deep state or he became wary of an unrestrained openness that could eventually cost him the presidency, we will never know. What followed was more of what the Syrian people had endured under his father. Moreover, economic openness only benefited Bashar’s close relatives and powerful figures.
The Arab Spring brought with it winds of potential change to Syria. Peaceful protests calling for basic rights and freedoms were crushed. There was no room for concessions. Peaceful protests turned violent and from then onwards various players emerged on the scene and chaos soon followed. We will never know if Assad regretted not dealing differently with protesters. Surely he did not expect the uprising to be hijacked by militants representing various ideologies. Syria’s secular intellectuals fled to neighbouring countries, but at home radicals led the uprising.
As the clashes turned bloody, Assad demonstrated that he is the only person who held all the cards within the regime. Questions regarding his involvement remain unanswered.
A major turn of events took place when thousands of foreign jihadists infiltrated the borders with Turkey between 2013 and 2015. That watershed triggered a series of foreign interventions in the Syrian civil war including the arrival of Iranian military advisers and pro-Iranian militias as well as Turkey and Russia. The US and a number of other states supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA); a loose alliance of various groups.
There is no doubt that foreign intervention in Syria has complicated the conflict. Russia’s military support of Assad in 2015 had rescued the regime. Iranian proxies, including Hezbollah, fought at various fronts and managed to drive back the rebels who were in control of massive swaths of the country.
Assad and his regime had survived but at what cost? At least one third of the country has been destroyed and millions of Syrians are internally displaced or had sought refuge outside it. The cost to the economy is in hundreds of billions of dollars. Syria is under US and western sanctions and Russia is providing military support but not much else. The people are suffering as the Syrian lira continues its downward spiral. Attempts to reconcile the regime with the opposition had failed. Even when Moscow tried to mediate and push for the adoption of a new constitution Bashar stood firm.
Today Assad is in control of most of Syria. But the US maintains military presence in the east and Turkey has troops in the north. In Idlib, the last outpost of the rebels, there is a stalemate. For now it appears that major battles are over. But Syrians are suffering. And there are fresh challenges too. Israel wants to undermine the Iranian presence in Syria. Not a week passes without the Israeli air force carrying out surgical strikes against Iranian depots. The Russians do nothing and the Syrian army is too weak to retaliate.
The elections will send a message that President Assad remains firmly in control. But this is a pyrrhic victory at best. The path to rebuilding Syria is blocked for now. Refugees will not be returning anytime soon and the economy is on the brink of collapse.
Even so there are signs that the Assad’s government may be on the path of political rehabilitation. A number of Arab countries are about to reopen their embassies in Damascus and Syria may regain its seat at the Arab League. That could be linked to the geopolitical shifts that the region is witnessing; a slow US departure from the region and a growing Russian presence. But would that be enough to save Assad and Syria whose fate is now firmly intertwined? One thing is for sure: Assad may appear to be in charge but Syria’s future path will be decided elsewhere.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.