Syrian president Bashar Assad’s reelection to a new seven-year term was met with doubts in the West over the transparency of the elections and a reminder of the conditions to normalize relations with Damascus. Russia, Syria’s main ally, meanwhile, pressed for “legitimizing” the results of the polls, while the silence of Arab countries was interpreted as a positive sign.
Another positive sign was the World Health Organization’s decision to elect the Syrian government to its executive board, a month after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague revoked Damascus’ rights and privileges.
In contrast to recent years, Assad’s victory speech was short and hand-written and broadcast on television, reminiscent of his father’s speeches in the 1980s. Assad also sought to respond to the anti-regime protests that erupted in 2011 and even attempted to portray his win as a counter-revolution.
Thousands of people had gathered in main squares in cities in regions held by the regime. The elections were held in regions controlled by the regime, therefore, excluding the province of Idlib and its western areas, Qamishli and its eastern areas and some southern regions. Syrians displaced abroad were also excluded from the vote.
In his speech, Assad declared that the Syrian people’s actions in recent weeks were “unprecedented defiance to the enemies of the nation and a shattering blow to their false arrogance and slap in the face to their agents and cronies.” Addressing the people, he added: “You have turned the tide and blown up the rules of the game. You have confirmed, without any doubt, that the national rules are set here, by our hands. There is no room for partners, except our brothers and friends.”
“You have known the revolution and reclaimed it after its name was tarnished by some mercenaries” and some traitors of the Syrian identity, he continued. The elections, he remarked, were not a celebration, “but a revolution, in every meaning of the word, against terrorism, treason and depravity.” It is a revolt of dignity against every immoral person who deigned to be manipulated by others.
Assad aimed his speech against the opposition and “revolutionaries” and thanked those who voted for him. He did not criticize any country or individual by name as he did in his 2014 electoral speech. Sights will be turned to his swearing in speech that should outline Damascus’ political agenda in the coming phase.
In his 2014 speech, Assad had slammed the so-called Arab Spring revolts, saying the Syrian people’s perseverance was the death knell of the uprisings.
In 2014, Assad was declared victor with 88.7 percent of the vote. He received at the time cables of congratulations from the leaders of Armenia, Afghanistan, Belarus, Venezuela, South Africa and Iran and the BRICs Group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
Russia did not lead the congratulations, but it did after this year’s polls.
President Vladimir Putin’s cable to Assad carried clear signs of defiance to the West, which has refused to acknowledge the “farce” elections.
“The results of the vote categorically confirm your high political reputation and trust your people have in the approach your leadership has adopted to stabilize Syria,” Putin said in his cable.
The Kremlin said that the Putin stressed that he will continue to provide all forms of support to the Syrian partners in fighting terrorism and extremism and offering a comprehensive political process.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the elections were a sovereign Syrian affair, slamming western criticism of the vote.
Soon after, cables of congratulations poured in from countries allied to Russia and opposed to the United States.
China’s Foreign Ministry expressed Beijing’s readiness to help Damascus defend Syria’s sovereignty and territorial unity. Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko voiced his country’s readiness to take part in Syria’s reconstruction. The leaders of Venezuela, North Korea and Abkhazia also extended their congratulations. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Syrian people’s vote was as “an important step towards deciding Syria’s fate and prosperity.”
As in 2014, cables of congratulations were sent by the leaders of Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Algeria to Assad. Lebanese President Michel Aoun hoped Assad’s reelection will help stabilize Syria, restore unity among its people and pave the way for the return of refugees back to their homes.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his pride in the mutual ties of fraternity and respect between the Palestinian and Syrian people.
In 2014, head of the Lebanese Hezbollah party Hassan Nasrallah had declared that the “solution in Syria starts with Assad and ends with Assad.” In congratulating Assad on Friday, he issued a brief statement in which he hoped that “the coming years would be a major opportunity for Syria’s return to its natural and leading role in the Arab world and on the international scene.”
Significantly, this year’s elections were held at the Syrian consulates in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. This stands in contrast to the 2014 Arab position. The elections at the time were only held in 39 countries, including nine Arab ones: Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria and Mauritania.
In 2014, then Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said the elections were a “clear and flagrant violation” of Damascus’ vows before the UN. The polls were also met with Gulf criticism and the recognition of over a hundred countries, including Arab ones, of the opposition Syrian National Coalition as a representative of the Syrian people.
In sharp contrast today, no Arab country or official has come out to reject the results of the elections. This new position has emerged in wake of the “cautious normalization of relations” taking place between Arab countries and Damascus, and reports that Syria’s membership at the Arab League may be restored. It has been suspended since late 2011.
Qatar was the sole standout in declaring that it “had no reason to restore relations with the Syrian regime.”
Absent American leadership
In 2014, the West, lead by the United States, was clear in rejecting the elections. Indeed, the G7 said: “We denounce the 3 June sham presidential election: there is no future for Assad in Syria.”
With the 2021 polls, a statement by the foreign ministers of the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy questioned the integrity of the elections. “We denounce the Assad regime’s decision to hold an election outside of the framework described in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and we support the voices of all Syrians, including civil society organizations and the Syrian opposition, who have condemned the electoral process as illegitimate.
“As outlined in the resolution, free and fair elections should be convened under UN supervision to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability. For an election to be credible, all Syrians should be allowed to participate, including internally displaced Syrians, refugees, and members of the diaspora, in a safe and neutral environment.
“Without these elements, this fraudulent election does not represent any progress towards a political settlement,” they said.
The European Union went a step further in warning that the polls should not be a precursor to normalizing relations with Damascus. The day of the elections, the bloc extended sanctions against 353 Syrian figures and entities for another year. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stressed that the bloc does not recognize the results of the polls, a stance echoed by Ankara.
Western officials reiterated their conditions for normalizing relations and contributing in Syria’s reconstruction.
In Washington, officials underlined the Caesar Act against Syria and the sanctions that would be imposed against any party that helps in the country’s reconstruction.
“We have absolutely no intention to normalize our own relations with the Assad regime. And we would certainly, I think, call on all other governments that are thinking of doing so to think very carefully about how the Syrian president has treated his own people,” a senior US official said on Wednesday.
“You know, it’s very difficult to imagine normalizing diplomatic relations with a regime that’s been so brutal to its own people,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Seven years ago, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected the Syrian elections and their impact on the political process. Now, UN chief Antonio Guterres has yet to make a statement about the elections. UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen has also shied away from commenting on the polls, sufficing by recalling the standards that should be followed in any elections to be considered credible.