Syria's strongman

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s re-election was not unexpected.

 Voting was held only in government-held areas and those living in the rebel-held North and East did not get to vote. Unlike previous presidential ‘elections’ in Syria, which were really referendums with voters compelled to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a single candidate, the just-concluded election offered voters multiple candidates to choose from. Assad swept the election with 89 per cent of the vote and has secured for himself a third seven-year term. While his opponents in the Syrian opposition and their backers in western capitals have been predicting the end of Assad’s rule for the past three years at least, Assad’s grip over power seems firm. He is often reviled for his authoritarian rule. However, he is still seen as the only leader who can stabilise strife-torn Syria and provide it with secular rule that respects all minority communities.

There are striking similarities between the recent presidential elections in Egypt and Syria. The winners won landslide victories but the credibility of their mandate is under a cloud. If in Egypt, a large number of voters boycotted the poll, in Syria, polling wasn’t held in rebel areas. It is interesting that the response of western governments to similar outcomes in the two countries is vastly different. While the US, Britain and France rushed to greet Gen Sisi on his victory in the Egyptian election, US secretary of state John Kerry has dismissed the Syrian election as ‘a big zero.’ Unlike Sisi, Assad is not regarded as a western ally. Much to the west’s chagrin, despite its enormous support to the anti-Assad rebel groups, the Syrian strongman is showing no signs of bowing out.

Assad has emerged from the election stronger than before. Over the past year, his government made significant military gains. Bitter infighting among the rebel groups helped the armed forces regain lost territory.  The victory on the electoral field which follows these gains on the battlefield will help Assad consolidate his position. Assad will seek to interpret his victory as endorsement of his pursuit of war. It is not. He must use his third term in office to open negotiations with the opposition. This civil war has gone on for too long and has taken a heavy toll. He must act to end it politically.

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