The ten-day registration period for presidential candidates in Syria has come to an end. Bashar Al-Assad was the last of seven to register their candidacy at the Supreme Court for the country's highest office. As the regime's armed forces advance on the ground and UN regulations and advice is subdued, will the Syrian elections become the opportunity for Assad to win back legitimacy vis-à-vis the international community, even as his own candidacy is open to question?
Speaker Mohammad al-Laham made the announcement of the incumbent's candidacy during a televised session of Syria's parliament. Assad's Western and Arab opponents have condemned the election as a parody of democracy with the implausibility of any reliable poll in a nation where 6 million people have been displaced, 2.5 million have fled as refugees and hundreds are killed daily.
MEMO spoke to Manuel Pirino, the Regional Coordinator for the Mashreq Countries at Transparency International, regarding the questionable procedures up to the election and the opportune schedule of the event. "Is it appropriate to ask the Syrians to choose their next leader while they are surrounded by death, hunger and fear of retaliation?" he asked. More importantly, he continued, after more than 3 years of this misery and over 150,000 dead, are the Syrians mentally and emotionally ready to vote?
Assad's letter to Syria's constitutional court, read out in parliament by the Speaker, said: "I... Dr Bashar Hafez Al-Assad... wish to nominate myself for the post of president of the republic, hoping that parliament will endorse it." A posting on Bashar's official Facebook page quoted him as calling on supporters to express their joy for different candidates and support for any candidate for the presidency in a "responsible, patriotic way", through the ballot box in a "suitable" fashion. He called on all Syrian citizens to "refrain from firing in the air in joy, whatever the occasion might be."
Bashar's Military Advancement
Last Thursday, Syrian regime troops took over large parts of the Wadi Al-Sayeh neighbourhood in Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. The area that houses an estimated 800 families has been under siege for over a year and remains an essential milestone for the forces as it connects the Khaldiyeh neighbourhood to Old Homs.
Now, they are living under "increased risk and existential threat," SOHR told the Lebanese Daily Star. "There are fears of sectarian attacks and murder of the families and the rebels in the old neighbourhoods if the regime forces and its militias take over."
On Wednesday, bombs exploded in central Damascus for the third day in a row, as Assad made an exclusive public appearance. One 10-year-old child was killed in the bombings and at least 28 people were wounded. The following day rockets fell again in central Damascus. SANA (Syrian Arab News Agency) reported that Wednesday's bombs near Bab Mesalla Square were set-off by "terrorists". By mid-afternoon Thursday, at least 43 people had been killed across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, including one woman and two children. Regime shelling was also reported that day in Deir Azzor, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, the LCC added.
SANA has also reported the opposition National Coordination Body (NCB) as reiterating its rejection of the current presidential elections in Syria, slamming the process as "unreal". Hassan Abdul-Azim, the head of NCB, described the current situation in Syria as "chaotic" and "impossible" for holding real presidential elections, and emphasised that tranquillity and stability are essential for such a process.
On a diplomatic level, officials said on Wednesday that Lakhdar Brahimi is keen to resign as the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, when efforts to secure a political solution to the crisis feel less and less feasible, as the seriousness of the predicament intensifies.
In mid-April the veteran Brahimi said: "Every day I wake up, I think I should resign, but I haven't so far. One day, perhaps, one day I will resign, and I assure you, you will find out."
Meanwhile, on the ground…
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported ongoing indiscriminate strikes by Syrian government forces on civilians and civilian targets in Aleppo. The attacks using imprecise high-explosive barrel bombs continue despite a UN Security Council Resolution passed unanimously on February 22, which commanded all parties in Syria to cease the use of barrel bombs and other such weapons in populated areas.
The documenting of at least 85 strikes in areas held by armed groups opposed to the government in Aleppo, two of which targeted clearly-marked official hospitals, pushed the UN to meet this week to discuss a second round of reporting on compliance since this agreement.
As HRW reported on Tuesday, two doctors and administrators in the facilities which were attacked explained that there were "no military targets nearby", and that the government attacked them intentionally.
"President Assad is talking about elections, but for Aleppo's residents the only campaign they are witnessing is a military one of barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling," said Nadim Houry, deputy MENA director at HRW. "It is time for Russia and China to stop blocking the Security Council and allow a weapons embargo on Syria's government and other abusive groups."
On the regime's side, activists and the government have said that armed groups – especially after they opened an offensive in early April - have shelled government-held parts of Aleppo as well. In some cases this was with improvised weapons prone to hitting targets indiscriminately when used in residential areas.
By analysing witness statements, satellite imagery and video and photographic evidence, HRW could verify that the government forces have not reduced their bombardment of the city significantly, since the Security Council Resolution was passed.
In the 40 days between February 22 and April 2, the organisation identified at least 85 additional major impact sites in neighbourhoods of the city held by armed groups opposed to the government. A substantial majority of these identified sites have damage signatures that are consistent with the detonation of barrel bombs.
SANA, Syria's state run news agency, and video footage reviewed by several human rights organisations, say that the groups used mortars as well as an improvised rocket fitted with a gas canister –referred to locally as "hell's cannon" – for attacks that hit residential areas in government-controlled areas, including al-Hamdania, Ashrafieh, Sulaymania, al-Midan, Jamila and Khalidiya. The sources indicate that 40 civilians were killed and another 149 injured in government-held territory during these attacks.
The UN has reaffirmed its "intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance with [the aforementioned] resolution."
"Two months after the passage of a unanimous Security Council resolution… [it] needs to act to give meaning to its words, if for not its own credibility, then for the long-suffering Syrians," said Houry.
As the UN struggles to at least keep warfare lawful in Syria and sees negotiations going down the drain, it remains unclear how the elections can be carried out safely in the middle of the war. Insurgents still attack in the heart of government territory and the government bombards insurgent-held areas in major cities like Aleppo on a daily basis.
In addition, the government has aimed to inflate international credibility by assuring the world of the destruction of its chemical weapons while it has missed deadlines repeatedly — most recently on Sunday — to fulfil this promise. It is also accused of further horrific chlorine gas attacks.
We asked Lina Khatib of the Carnegie think-tank about Assad's quest for international authenticity through the timely, up-coming election. Apart from securing his position for the next seven years, "he is seeking to establish local and international legitimacy for himself as an elected president," she explained. A third reason for this opportune move during times of chaos, she added, is that "Assad wants to secure for himself a position as a counter-terrorism partner for the West."
The regime is gaining ground against the opposition in key areas extending from Damascus to Latakia, with the aim of taking hold of core regions that would allow the Assad regime to stay in power regardless of the situation in peripheral areas.
Regarding the transparency of these opportune events about to unfold, "even the activities of the last few months alone, would jeopardize the fairness of the elections," clarified Transparency International's Pirino. The government might be hard-pressed to have ballots ready and procedures in place to identify voters. "The lists of voters might be inconsistent," he noted, "thus denying many people the right to vote."
The election will, in practice, be mayhem, with Syrians already having limited opportunities to express themselves freely. Concerns for personal security, even assuming that the devastated infrastructure could support the complex machinery necessary for a national election, mean that there would be little, if any, space for proper electoral monitoring, predicted Pirino. The legitimacy of the results would thus be in question. Another predicted failure is the assessment procedure. The daunting task of monitoring becomes ever more intricate as the legal framework on the right to access to information and the protection of whistle-blowers is very weak. "Finally, in the current climate of strife and unrest, just about any result would exacerbate the situation," he warned.
Bashar's criteria hiccup
The candidates competing with Assad for president are Hassan al-Nouri, Mohammad Firas, Yassin Rajjouh, Abdul-Salam, Youssef Salameh, Sawsan Omar al-Haddad and Sameer Ahmad Mo'alla. Latakia-born Al-Haddad is the first woman to stand for president in Syria. Assad is the heavy favourite to win the election, although scrutiny of Bashar's own candidacy criteria reveals some uncertainty about his political future.
The new electoral law that was passed in March last year set out clearly the qualifications to be met by all individuals standing for the presidency. They should be at least 40 years of age at the start of the election year, hold Syrian citizenship from Syrian parents and be married to a Syrian citizen. Assad's wife Asmaa was born, raised and educated in Britain and holds dual citizenship. "He might not be allowed to run for president during the June 3rd elections due to his wife's British citizenship," the former Chargé d'Affaires in the Syrian embassy in London, Khaled Ayoubi, said. Ayoubi broke from the regime at the end of July 2012.
Asmaa Al-Assad has not been legally stripped of her Syrian citizenship although she should have been. Decree number 276 of 1969 stipulates, in item number 10, that "Arab Syrian individuals shall lose their Syrian citizenship should they hold a foreign one. However, this must be paralleled by a special decree to strip him of his original nationality, based on his own suggestion as well as that of the Minister of Interior, who is to allow him to relinquish it after meeting all national requirements."
Another item in this decree describes how all Syrians should be imprisoned from one to three months if the individual holds a second nationality and chooses explicitly to relinquish Syrian nationality. As such, all individuals bearing dual nationalities are considered to be breaching the law and should be penalised.
In order to overcome this obstacle, Assad's regime is planning to freeze the said decree in order to "maintain ties between immigrants and their homeland". It's all very convenient. "Assad will do whatever it takes to secure his election as president in June," said Khatib, "including amending the constitution and electoral law."
This will not be the first time that the current president has sidestepped the law. He took over as president on his father's death even though he was only 37 at the time, instead of the required 40.
Overlooking the obvious and desperate need for reform and Assad's questionable fulfilment of his own election criteria, he should have a somewhat easy task ahead of him, Ms. Khatib predicts. "It would be a stretch of the imagination to see someone other than Bashar Al-Assad elected as Syrian president in June."