Syrian Baath Seeks Parliamentary Elections to Form ‘War Council

Syrians walk in old Damascus in front of a portrait of Syrian president Bashar Assad. (AFP)
Syrians walk in old Damascus in front of a portrait of Syrian president Bashar Assad. (AFP)
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Syrian Baath Seeks Parliamentary Elections to Form ‘War Council

Syrians walk in old Damascus in front of a portrait of Syrian president Bashar Assad. (AFP)
Syrians walk in old Damascus in front of a portrait of Syrian president Bashar Assad. (AFP)

Syria is bracing for parliamentary elections, which will be held on July 19. The ruling Baath Party’s decisions in the buildup to the polls have revealed three trends: The Baath leadership is keen on restoring state institutions and forming a “war council” to confront sanctions; the role of new businessmen and groups that fought alongside the army has grown; political money has taken centerstage amid the stifling economic crisis raging in the country.

The elections will be held in regime-held areas and partial polls will be staged in regions where it has some control, such as Hasakeh, Idlib and al-Raqqa.

It appears that Damascus is keen on holding the elections, as it did in 2012 and 2016, regardless of the course of the UN-led peace process aimed at implementing Security Council resolution 2254, which was approved in 2015. The resolution calls for holding constitutional reform that would pave the way for UN-supervised parliamentary and presidential elections.

Western countries do not recognize the results of Syrian elections and have instead been pushing for the implementation of resolution 2254. This has not deterred Damascus, which is forging ahead with its plans, regardless of the fact that it only controls 65 percent of Syrian territories. It is still a step up from 2015 when it only controlled 15 percent.

President Bashar Assad had relieved last month prime minister Imad Khamis of his duties, replacing him with Water Resources Minister Hussein Arnous. Former Homs governor Talal Barazi is seen as the favorite to be named premier after the election of the People’s Council.

Baath efforts
The Baath, which is supposedly no longer the ruling party after a 2012 constitutional amendment, has sought to give its members greater freedom in choosing their candidates for the 250-member council, which includes 65 independents. The Baath has lost a lot of its support during the conflict due to its handling of the crisis and the defection of several members.

Days ago, Assad chaired a Baath meeting, saying the negative and positive elements that the electoral process has revealed are significant not just for the party, but the whole country.

Electoral campaigns are underway in Syria with the Baath included in the National Progressive Front list that includes national, communist and Nasserite parties licensed by Damascus. Several pro-regime businessmen are in the running. They include Mohammed Hamsho, who is sanctioned by the West, and Samer al-Dibs in Damascus and Hussam Qaterji in Aleppo. The leaders of pro-Damascus armed factions are also running in the elections. They include Fadel Warda, leader of a factions in the Hama countryside and Bassel Sudan, leader of the “Baath Kataib”, who is running in Latakia.

Candidates have reached 8,735, running in 15 electoral districts. The Baath list boasts 166 candidates from the party and 17 from other parties.

‘Implicit’ quotas

Researchers Ziad Awad and Agnes Favier had compiled a report for the European University Institute on the elections. They wrote: “While the 2011 uprising deeply challenged the authoritarian regime in several regions, analysis of the parliamentary election in wartime is crucial to understanding how the regime attempted to renew its social base, which is assumed to have shrunk during the first years of the conflict.

“The last poll to elect the 250 MPs of the People’s Council took place in April 2016 in a country deeply divided, at a time when regime forces were still weak and controlled less than 40% of the territory. Despite the profound upheavals caused by the conflict, the Syrian authorities organized the election in a manner similar to the pre-war process. The Regional Command of the Baath Party played a key role in the pre-selection of candidates despite having lost its role as the leading party in society and the state in the 2012 constitution.

“The Baath Party increased the proportion of the seats (more than 67%) it has held in the council since 1973. The slight rise in the number of Baath Party seats came at the expense of both the other authorized political parties (only six of the National Progressive Front parties and one party newly established after 2012 won seats in 2016) and independents (the number of which has never been so low since 1990).

“Although the distribution of seats by sectarian and ethnic group and gender is not a recognized form of representation in the People’s Council, the implicit quotas for minorities which were applied in the pre-war decade were also much the same in 2016.

“However, the profiles of MPs show significant changes to the traditional categories which were usually represented in the People’s Council before the war and included active members of the Baath Party or of its affiliated popular and union organizations, notables and tribal elders, businessmen, clerics and public figures. Except for traditional Baathists, who still were the most numerous in 2016, the characteristics of representatives of other interest groups (such as businessmen, clerics and tribal leaders, who are traditionally elected as ‘independents’) profoundly changed and new social categories (such as militia leaders and families of martyrs) emerged,” said the report.

War council

“The common characteristic of these newcomer MPs is that they had participated in war efforts alongside the regime. Shifts were more visible in governorates which had experienced major military, political and demographic upheavals (Aleppo, Daraa, rural Damascus, Deir Ezzour and Raqqa) than in ones which had been spared from violence (Damascus, Latakia and Tartous) or retaken early by regime forces (Homs),” continued the report.

“The 2016-2020 Assembly looked like a ‘council of war’ and reflected three priorities of the regime in one of the most critical periods of the armed conflict. First, the regime needed to promote its most active supporters (involved in military or propaganda activities) all over the country at a time when its first objective was to win the military battle. Second, the large presence of traditional Baathists reveals a decision to restore the central role of the Baath Party in keeping alive state institutions after the internal crisis and shifts within the party in the first years of the uprising. Finally, the election of new actors (such as members of martyrs’ families) illustrates the need for the regime to maintain its social base, particularly among minorities,” it noted.



Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

At weddings, football matches and other special events, some Iraqi men like to fire salvos of celebratory gunfire into the sky, worrying little about where the bullets might fall.

For some Iraqis, the tradition has been devastating, as have random bullets from sporadic gun battles in a society still awash with weapons after decades of war and turmoil.

Baghdad mother Randa Ahmad was busy with chores when a loud bang startled her. Alarmed, she hurried to the living room to find her four-year-old son Mohamed bleeding on the floor.

"A stray bullet hit him in the head," the 30-year-old said weeks later, her child sitting timidly by her side in their suburban house.

The bullet "came out of nowhere", said Ahmad, who doesn't know who fired it or why.

Her child now suffers from severe headaches and tires easily, but doctors say surgery to remove the bullet is too risky.

"If the bullet moves," Ahmad said, "it could cause paralysis."

Celebratory gunfire and gun battles sometimes sparked by minor feuds are a daily occurrence in Iraq, where firearms possession remains widespread despite a period of relative calm.

Iraq, a country of 43 million, endured wars under ruler dictator Saddam Hussein, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the sectarian conflict and extremist insurgencies that followed.

During the years of bloody turmoil, all types of weapons flooded into the country and have often been used in tribal disputes and political score-settling.

Many households claim to own firearms for protection.

As of 2017, some 7.6 million arms -- handguns, rifles and shotguns -- were held by civilians in Iraq, says monitoring group the Small Arms Survey, which believes the number has since risen.

- 'Bullet fell from the sky' -

Saad Abbas was in his garden in Baghdad when he was jolted by a sharp, searing pain in his shoulder.

"At first, I thought someone had hit me with a stone," the 59-year-old said. Then he realized that a "bullet fell from the sky" and hit him.

Months later, he remains mostly bedridden, the projectile still lodged in his shoulder after doctors advised against surgery because of a pre-existing medical condition.

"I can't raise my hand," he said. "It hurts. I can't even remove my bed cover."

Abbas voiced fury at those who fire off celebratory rounds when "a football team wins, during a wedding or an engagement party".

"Where do the bullets go?" he asked. "They fall on people!"

He decried the rampant gun ownership and said that "weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the state".

Iraqi law punishes illegal firearms possession with up to one year in prison, but authorities announced plans last year to tighten controls.

Security forces have urged civilians to register their guns in 697 centers, allowing each family to possess just one light weapon for "protection", said interior ministry spokesman Miqdad Miri.

The government also recently started offering civilians up to $4,000 to buy their weapons.

But Miri acknowledged that in tribal and rural areas, many people "consider weapons a part of their identity".

In recent years, their collections have been swelled by the "huge quantities" of firearms left behind by the Iraqi army during the US-led invasion, he said.

During the tumultuous years since, weak border controls and the emergence of extremists allowed arms trafficking to thrive.

- 'Attached to their weapons' -

"Our main problem is not small arms but medium and large weapons," Miri said, referring to military-issue assault rifles and other powerful guns.

Security expert Ahmed el-Sharifi also said that "civilians are attached to their weapons" but that even harder to control are the arsenals of "armed political groups and tribes... This is the most dangerous."

Despite the state's efforts to control the gun scourge, the problem frequently makes headlines.

Earlier this year, a video went viral showing armed clashes between relatives in a busy market in eastern Baghdad that left one person dead.

In March, a senior intelligence officer was shot dead when he tried to resolve a tribal dispute.

And in April, celebratory gunfire at a wedding took the life of the groom in the northern city of Mosul.

Last year, another man, Ahmed Hussein, 30, said he was hit in the leg, presumably also by a bullet fired at a wedding.

He said he had just gone for a nap when he was startled by gunfire and then felt a sharp pain.

"I fell out of bed and looked at my leg to find it bleeding," Hussein said.

He too decried how even a simple argument "between children or at a football game" can quickly lead to someone squeezing a trigger, with those paying the price often "innocent bystanders".