The Fake Syrian Elections

A Desperate Attempt at Legitimacy
A poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad superimposed upon the national flag with text in Arabic reading "Syria's workers are with you" is seen on a window in an upper floor of the historic Hamidiyah souk (market) in the old city of Syria's capital Damascus on April 21, 2021, during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (Getty)

The Syrian elections are coming up in May, and the world has already denounced the results. Knowing that democracy in Syria is nonexistent, and that the brutality of the regime and its allies often dictate the political course of the country, no one has any doubts that Assad will win, although the majority won’t vote for him. This time, however, the elections are also about the legitimacy of the regime’s supporters – Iran and Russia – and a confirmation to the international community that Assad will hold on to his power.

International Reactions

The Syrian parliament announced that the Syrian parliamentary elections would take place on May 26, 2021, a move that is expected to help Bashar Assad maintain his grip on power in Syria. According to a BBC report, all of Washington, France, Britain, and the Syrian opposition have denounced these elections as a travesty as Assad is not expected to face serious opposition, despite his lack of popularity and the heavy dependence on foreign forces such as Russia and Iran.

“The failure to enact a new constitution is proof positive that the so-called election on May 26 will be a sham,” US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said during a monthly session of the Security Council on Syria. The Assad regime “must take steps to enable the participation of refugees, internally displaced persons, and the diaspora in any Syrian elections. Until then, we will not be fooled,” she said.

The French ambassador to the UN, Nicolas de Riviere, said that “France will not recognize any validity to the elections planned by the regime at the end of May,” adding that without including Syrians abroad, the elections “will be held under the sole control of the regime, without international supervision” as provided for by a UN resolution. British diplomat Sonia Farrey added that “elections that take place in the absence of a safe and neutral environment, in an ongoing climate of fear, when millions of Syrians depend on humanitarian aid... do not confer political legitimacy, but instead demonstrate disregard for the Syrian people.”

However, the Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, called the idea that some nations have already denounced the results “distressing.” He criticized their “unacceptable interference in Syria’s internal affairs.”

After around 400,000 people killed and over half of Syrians displaced, Assad still have the audacity to run for elections; however, this is obviously a decision supported by both Russia and Iran. Without the Assad regime, both these regimes will lose their sway in Syria, and the Syrians will have to keep in mind that these elections are not only about choosing the next Syrian president, but also about who controls Syria, and who dictates its decisions.

Without any international supervision or willingness to use these elections as an opportunity to enforce change, Assad will most likely win a fourth term, and Syria’s immediate future will not look good.

This is the second time Syria witnesses elections since the beginning of the crisis, but as in 2014, they will be forged and will not be recognized by the international community. The 2014 vote was also the first time in decades that someone other than a member of the Assad family had been allowed to run for president in Syria. This time around, Assad also allowed a few candidates to run against him, in an orchestrated and incredibly obvious manner that left no doubt that none of these candidates are actually opposition, or trying to challenge Assad and his regime.

Significance and Repercussions

This enthusiasm towards elections on behalf of the regime proves that despite the dire economic situation, the regime and its sponsors have decided to manage the crisis, instead of resolving it, same as they are acting next door in Lebanon. These elections mean that the situation in Syria will only get worse as the economy deteriorates further.

The question remains as to whether these elections will take place all over Syrian territories, as many parts of the country are outside regime control. What happens then to Syrians in Idlib, Ras El-Ain, Raqqa, Hasaka, among many others, where various forces have more control, such as Islamist factions, Turkey, and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? The Syrian regime might make some effort to include some of these areas, but not in a serious and genuine way to include others, but to portray some kind of legitimacy to the elections. However, many do not buy it.

The regime knows that, and it is aware of the fake legitimacy these elections will provide. But Assad is not trying to convince the opposition or the international community of its legitimacy or the value of the elections. This charade is tailored and designed to speak to the regime loyalists, who are today finding it difficult to stay loyal, while the country faces a dire economic situation and international isolation. However, these loyalists need to keep believing that their choices are valid, and that the regime is the only legitimate choice – despite everything.

To add more legitimacy, the regime allowed a few candidates to run against him – most of whom are unknown. But it doesn’t’ matter if these candidates were serious or not. What matters is the image – the image of legitimacy – not the core of it, or its meaning.

From the Russian perspective, and the Iranian to a certain extent, these elections can be used as a bargaining chip or a pressure tool against the international community, and gives Assad more time to rehabilitate its legitimacy and power. Meanwhile, the western powers will tire from Syria and its complications, and more priorities will come up, as was the case in the past few years.

Western states’ denunciation of the elections and its predicted results is appreciated, but it’s not enough. Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters do not really care of the international community is convinced of his legitimacy. What Assad needs is more power and time to maintain this power. And that’s exactly what the regime will gain.


Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.