Monday the Syrian regime announced that presidential elections will be held June 3. The State Department dismissed the news. “The fact that you would even think you can hold free and fair elections in the middle of a civil war,” said a State Department spokesman, “is absurd.”
It is surely the case that the reelection of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will not be free and fair. The last time Syrians went to the polls in 2007, Assad won with 97.62 percent of the vote, a slight increase over his 97.29 tally in 2000. And this was all before Assad started shooting at unarmed protestors in March 2011. Now some 160,000 corpses later, it’s unlikely many Syrians will risk making their opposition to Assad known by voting against him. So yes, as the State Department notes, presidential elections in Syria, and especially now in the middle of a civil war, are absurd. The question then is, why is the Obama administration campaigning on behalf of Assad?
Assad will almost surely run uncontested as he did the last two times out, but Syria’s political future will not be decided at the ballot box. It will be determined on the field of battle where the two options are Assad and the opposition. While the White House has repeatedly claimed that Assad has lost his legitimacy to govern Syria, it has also made its displeasure with the opposition clear since the beginning of the uprising. Indeed, the administration has reasoned that it is because the opposition is fractious and fragmented that it merits neither the White House’s full political support, nor sufficient military assistance to topple the regime.
The big problem, says the White House, is that the opposition lacks a comprehensive and inclusive political program. "Obviously, a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime," former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in 2011. "It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender." The new government, Clinton said at the time, must be "'measured, deliberate and utterly devoid of revenge."
The administration’s public statements regarding a post-Assad Syria showed that it misunderstood not only the nature of sectarian conflict, but also the thrust of Assad’s particular project. It was Assad after all who had established the rules of the bloody game of revenge that the White House warned his victims not to play. The regime’s campaign of sectarian cleansing is meant to ensure that the Sunni community’s inevitable desire to call in blood debts would compel the Alawites and other minority communities to align themselves with the regime. As Tony Badran, fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in 2012, the “pattern of deliberate sectarian killings [is] the product of cold deliberation by Assad. The Syrian dictator is seeking to irredeemably tie the fate of the Alawites to his own.”
The administration’s insistence that a post-Assad dispensation show special care to minorities, many of whom have fought alongside Assad, openly backed him, or profited from his depredations, is evidence of a ghoulish indifference to the regime’s victims, the vast majority of whom have been Sunnis. Furthermore, it echoes and substantiates Assad’s strategic messaging campaign that he, unlike the Sunni majority opposition, protects Syria’s minority communities.