Daniel R. DePetris Headshot

The Clever, 'Democratically Supported,' Bloodthirsty Tyrant

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At least 160,000 people dead, a third of them civilians. Nearly 3 million Syrians pushed out of their country and forced to live in refugee camps. Nearly half of the country's population displaced from their homes, some cowering in fear in makeshift shelters, schools, hospitals, or mosques. Entire neighborhoods and city districts destroyed by barrel bombs from Syrian army helicopters and missile strikes from Syrian fighter aircraft. The massacre of tens of thousands of children. The preying of al-Qaeda militias. Some $143.8 billion lost from the Syrian economy since the war began. GDP down by nearly 38 percent, with 54 percent of the Syrian population living in extreme poverty.

To Bashar al-Assad, the man responsible for much of this calamity, none of this makes much of a difference -- it's still a great time to hold presidential elections. Never mind that the Syrian government doesn't have control over much of the north or east of the country, or the fact that the civil war shows no signs of abating. And forget about the fact that the two candidates beside Assad are little-known lawmakers who have no support base inside the country and who were carefully vetted by the government before being allowed to campaign.

None of this makes a difference for Assad, because Syrians far and wide will come to their senses and place their undying loyalty to him, the one man who can restore unity and security to the great Syrian nation -- all the while killing those crazy al-Qaeda types dominating the opposition's ranks.

You will hear this argument over and over again from regime supporters, but no one taking an impartial view of the Syrian conflict can hold a straight face to this perception of the war. The United States, the Syrian opposition's Gulf Arab sponsors, former mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself have all called Syria's election a farce, a mockery of democracy, or simply unwise in a hotly contested civil war.

Bashar al-Assad, however, has not survived three years of warfare and stayed in his post beyond expectations by caring about what the international community has to say. To him, the international community, led by the duplicitous and scheming United States, is what is driving the devastation that millions of Syrians are experiencing. Whether or not he actually believes that one can only guess. But that is the line he has stuck to.

To be blunt, Syria's presidential contest is indeed incredibly insulting to anyone who can legitimately call himself or herself a democrat. Yet the voting that the Syrian National Coalition has called a "blood election" is an integral part of Assad's strategy for the war. It's a strategy that is completely indiscriminate, completely inhumane, completely contrary to the Geneva Conventions or any article of international humanitarian law. But it's a strategy that is sadly working for him at the moment, and will continue to work absent some kind of change in the Obama administration's Syria policy.

As bloodthirsty as the Assad regime is now, Bashar al-Assad has actually responded to the opposition gradually and in increments. When guns, bullets, and arrests didn't silence peaceful demonstrations in 2011, tanks were deployed to intimidate protesters. When the tanks didn't work and the peaceful protests started to transform into an armed opposition in some parts of the country, the regime sealed up neighborhoods, shot as those who tried to leave, and pounded buildings with artillery and mortars. (Remember the siege of Baba Amr in January and February 2012?) Helicopters and aircraft were eventually used later in the spring and summer of 2012, and since that time, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, starve-and-submit tactics, the besieging of civilians, and the dropping of chlorine-gas munitions have reared their ugly heads. The conclusion is simple: The regime will use all the power at its disposal to stay in power, regardless of the costs to its reputation or the men, women, and children whose lives are destroyed or severely damaged for life.

The election that took place this week is the carrot to the regime's persistent use of the stick. Sadly, the carrot will also give Bashar al-Assad the electoral justification he needs to crack down even harder... you know, because the people totally support it.