Assad preparing for inevitable re-election
BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's is preparing for an inevitable re-election next week as the civil war shifts in the army's favour, with rebels losing ground and world powers paralysed by divisions.
A brutal three-year conflict that wrought destruction across the country and displaced millions, has left large swathes of territory in rebel hands. And the June 3 vote, in which Assad is seeking a third seven-year term, will only take place in regime-controlled areas.
The main opposition has already dismissed Syria's first multi-candidate election as a "farce" after the regime ensured no upsets by barring exiles from standing and with candidates needing the endorsement of 35 MPs in the state-controlled parliament.
The United States has called the vote a "parody of democracy."
Candidates Maher al-Hajjar, an independent former communist MP, and Hassan al-Nouri, a businessman belonging to the tolerated opposition, are seen as token rivals giving the vote a veneer of credibility.
No candidate from the rebel ranks is running, in what is effectively the first presidential election in more than 50 years. Until now, like his father and predecessor Hafez, who ruled with an iron first from 1970 to 2000, Bashar secured his two previous mandates through a referendum.
"It is not about measuring popularity in a vote but to prove the power of the regime to force the country to demonstrate allegiance," said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
In theory, all Syrians over the age of 17 are eligible to vote, including the seven million displaced within the country, but the reality is far more complicated, and dangerous.
"The elections will take place in all the cities in Syria, with the exception of Raqa," which is the hands of powerful jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the constitutional court's spokesman Majid al-Khadra said.
By implication, there will be no polling stations in much of the countryside, notably northern and eastern Syria and around Damascus, or in areas of certain cities under rebel control, including Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.
Fabrice Balanche, a French geographer who specialises in Syria, estimates that the vote will take place only 40 percent of the territory, where around 60 percent of the population live.
Voting actually begins on Wednesday, when Syrian expats go to the polls at 39 embassies around the world, pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported on Tuesday, citing a foreign ministry source.
But of the estimated three million Syrians living abroad, whether as refugees or expatriates, only around 200,000 are able to vote.
"It's a relatively acceptable figure, if we bear in mind the fact that France, Germany and Belgium have banned Syrian citizens" from casting their ballots, Al-Watan said.
- 'Superficial constitutional legitimacy' -
Much of the international community has criticised Damascus for holding an election with the civil war still raging. But staunch Damascus allies Russia and Iran are supporting the vote, and Tehran has said it will send election observers.
The conflict began in March 2011 when the army suppressed a peaceful uprising, sparking a full-blown civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people, forced nearly half the population to flee their homes and shattered the economy.
Souhail Belhadj, author and academic at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, said "Bashar wants to prove that he is the political alternative and that he is able to restore order and legality, even if this legality is achieved through a non-democratic political process."
Events on the ground appear to working in Assad's favour, even if the army's gains remain limited.
Infighting between rival jihadists, namely ISIL and Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, has killed about 4,000 people.
Al-Nusra has been accepted as an ally by many rebels, undermining their support in the West.
In the end, analysts say the election will not lead to any significant political changes.
"The Assads have always been sticklers for superficial constitutional legitimacy, without ever conceding an inch of their absolute power," said Aron Lund, an expert on the conflict at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Assad might perhaps make "some little gesture towards negotiations and compromise, for international consumption" and to show his supporters that he's got a realistic plan for the future.