The Syrian 'Election' -- a Farce Hiding a Deeper Tragedy

06/02/2014 10:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014

In the aftermath of the European elections, concerns are being voiced over low turnout and popular disaffection with the EU. In the United States, the clock ticks toward the November mid-terms. Controversy rages over the Keystone Pipeline and Patient Protection. The vote could result in an impotent White House for the next two years. In both cases, though, whatever other concerns arise, we know at least that the polls are fair and democratic. The people will decide and will be accountable for the outcomes, whether or not they vote.

Meanwhile, in Syria, an "election" is planned for tomorrow. The Iranian former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi may claim that the Syrian president "will take part, and the Syrian people will elect whomever they want," but this is clearly nonsense. This will be an election carried out in the midst of war. It will be entirely unrepresentative of freedom, pluralism and democracy. Syria's 2012 constitution, for example, states that the head of state must be Muslim, which is clearly undemocratic. This rules out Christians -- a fact currently condemned by opposition groups, but given their Islamist character, if they came to power they would likely use it to exclude those "Muslims" who do not conform to their very narrow, perverted ideology.

Moreover, Syrians who have lived outside the country within the past 10 years are not eligible to stand in the election. This means that the millions who left in search of a better life, over the past decades, a life with freedom, dignity and prosperity of which they were deprived in their homeland, are excluded.

Furthermore, Syrian citizens who live in countries where Syrian Embassies have been closed, including the US, France and Germany, have essentially been deprived even of the right to vote.

And within Syria, it is only those living in government-controlled areas who will be able to exercise their right to vote.

And those who have endured the hardships of life in Syria and nearby refugee camps over the past three years have very different priorities. To many, the very idea of democracy is a luxury. Having experienced the anarchy of the conflict, they dream only of having their basic needs met. And if a dictator can ensure supplies of food and electricity -- and most importantly, at least relative security -- they will vote for him. Meanwhile, the very same constitution that limits those able to stand for election also allows the president to remain in power until 2028.

In this context, no wonder Ban Ki-moon has condemned the election plan as being likely to torpedo efforts to end the three-year civil war. It is hard to believe that three years ago, peaceful protest against the same regime heralded an apparent "Syrian Spring." Over 150,000 Syrians have died since those uprisings began; 600,000 have been injured. Nine million have been displaced. It is hard for even the most vehement and optimistic liberal to picture a Syria in which meaningful elections can be held.

The regime is clearly culpable of brutality and negligence on an epic scale. It bears direct responsibility for not encouraging a democratic discourse prior to hostilities breaking out. And it is open to ridicule on numerous levels; not least in its conciliatory moves toward extremist opposition fighters, when it previously refused to interact with peaceful, liberal opponents. But having marginalized liberal opponents early on, the regime now finds itself courting the very worst of the extremists. Even worse, having missed the opportunity earlier in the conflict to insist on the inclusion of liberal, democratic parties, the bitter irony is that the regime now finds itself in dialogue only with the overwhelmingly Islamist opposition, as this is the only opposition recognized by the West.

And on that note, given the incompetence and violence of the regime in Damascus, one must ask why last year's NATO research on the ground in Syria amongst the indigenous population suggested 70 percent support for the regime. Blame, sadly, lies largely in the West. Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." But that summarizes the approach toward Syria from Washington, London and Paris.

At first they supported the Syrian National Council, a group based in Turkey, backed by Qatar, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and hell-bent on framing the Syrian opposition on sectarian lines. It took Secretary of State Hillary Clinton 18 months to acknowledge that the SNC did not represent the Syrian people. Events played ample witness to this error. And yet the West again backed the SNC as it re-formed into the equally extreme Syrian National Coalition. Even worse, the US has subsequently offered it representation back home. The UK is currently considering doing the same.

On the ground, the conflict worsened, and Saudi threw yet more weight behind Islamist rebel forces. Salafi and Wahhabi extremists flooded into the country. The Supreme Military Council of the "Free Syrian Army" was exclusively comprised of Salafi extremist groups; its supposed rival militias like the Saudi-backed "Islamic Front" are often made up of the same people, with the same weapons, simply fighting under different names.

From US Congressman Michael McCaul and Secretary of Justics Eric Holder to Germany's top security official Thomas de Maziere, well-informed observers have stated repeatedly that the rebel movements are mainly comprised of terrorist elements. Senior figures in the UK and US describe the threat from Islamists in Syria as the biggest threat to national security in the West. In Syria itself, civilians of all sects have been butchered in their villages, schools and places of worship. Jihadists stream into the country at ever-increasing rates. And yet the West has continued to fund and arm the rebels. The U.S Secretary of State John Kerry publicly dismissed the significant involvement of Al Qaida even as clear evidence streamed-in of atrocities carried out under the black flag. Recent evidence suggests the U.S has started arming opposition forces with advanced weapons like the TOW. The US claims, somewhat laughably, that arms are only being provided to vetted groups. And yet the situation on the ground is chaotic with Islamist groups morphing into different alliances under different names. At one stage, groups from the "Free Syrian Army" were portrayed in the West as having had their weapons "stolen" when in fact they had simply left the "Supreme Military Council" of the "Free Syrian Army" and taken their weapons with them.

Behind the scenes, senior figures like army chief General Dempsey recognized the role of Al Qaida, so why are alarm bells only now ringing in Washington, London and Paris? Michael Morell, the outgoing Deputy Director of the CIA, stated last August that Islamist extremists returning from Syria pose the greatest threat to U.S National Security; geography suggests that the threat must be exponentially higher in Europe. US Army General Lloyd Austin III recently said the spread of violence and terrorist activity from Syria could engulf the region. And yet the UK, France and other countries in the EU took a further nine months to respond with similar statements of their own.

The only way to achieve a lasting peace is for the International Community to support an all-inclusive, political transition, by bringing together all opposition groups who genuinely believe in democracy and freedom and are willing to commit to it. And yet there is not, and has not been, a liberal voice representing the mosaic of ethnicities, religions and other identities that make up the Syrian people. Forty-five percent of Syrians represent "minority" groups, and are part of the peaceful majority who seek a genuine democracy. They have been overlooked by the West yet again.

Most worryingly of all, this trend appears to be worsening. The recent European Parliament's resolution on Syrian minorities excluded the Alawites, "Shias" and "Ismailis." It would appear that they are being punished by the West for their nominal association with the regime. Which is hardly democratic! It is simply a further demonstration of the way that every element of the Syrian conflict is being polarized, not only by those one would expect to take extreme positions, but by those who are supposed to be promoting the values of freedom and democracy.

That brings us back to tomorrow's "elections." As we have witnessed, many of those Syrians currently living in Lebanon have already voted for the regime. Not because things were perfect before the troubles began. But because there is no alternative. Life before 2011 can only be preferable to the lack of dignity they are currently receiving as refugees; news is now spreading of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in refugee camps. In parts of Lebanon, Syrian citizens are under curfew from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.

And life under the regime in Syria was certainly preferable to the prospect of Islamist control. Syrian refugees lack many of life's basic amenities, but the international community must appreciate that things are considerably worse in rebel-controlled areas, where the lack of amenities is compounded by the imposition of Sharia law. Those in government-controlled areas count their blessings.

These elections are clearly meaningless. The liberal and democratic opposition is not represented either inside of outside Syria. Any so-called "independent" candidates are stooges of the regime, allowed to stand to give the appearance of democracy. What's more, even if they wanted to seriously contest the election, candidates were only accepted by the government a couple of months ago, leaving no time for an electoral strategy or campaign. As a result, they have no supporters and no time to win them, even if they had the necessary resources, independent media and civil liberties, which they do not. This is not an election, but a foregone conclusion; a farce enabling the regime to claim it won against multiple candidates.

The fault lies in three areas. A brutal regime that has treated vast tracts of its population with disdain for too long; an increasingly extreme opposition, funded and armed by the Gulf States that has hijacked a peaceful revolution; and the international community that has watched, waited and allowed a volatile situation to become unmanageable. Islamism has been allowed to become the default opposition to the regime; which makes real progress and diplomacy impossible -- and robs the Syrian people of viable alternatives. On the contrary, a regional sectarian divide has developed, drawing-in vested interests across the globe, with Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah supporting the regime, and the US, NATO, Saudi, Qatar and Jordan backing various elements of the opposition. Had the opposition understood the geopolitical reality that Syria's allies would back it to the hilt, they would have taken advantage of the popular uprisings and international pressure to change at the very start when the regime was weak. It should have formed parties, engaged in politics and won international backing, which could have prepared the ground for genuine elections now. This would have prevented the carnage of the past three years.

Real democracy means open parties with genuine members, and media outlets to support their campaigns. Having failed to engage in democracy when it had the chance, when political parties could have been formed and free media outlets encouraged with the regime's back against the wall, the opposition is now powerless to work toward a government of national unity with a democratic constitution as it should have done years ago.

In the meantime, the most pressing question is "what happens next?" When will the West appreciate that their backing of the SNC is simply pouring fuel on the sectarian flames? When will they formally denounce the Gulf States and Turkey for backing Islamist forces? When will they understand that the Gulf States cannot entertain the prospect of a democracy flourishing so close to home? And if and when the war ends, who is going to come in and rebuild my country at a cost in excess of $100 billion? Meanwhile, the conflict gives the regime every excuse for its many failings -- everything is blamed on the war.

The lesson of the past few years is that it is not enough to see democracy merely as a goal; the process of getting there must also be democratic, and all those involved must be prepared to sign up to democratic values including religious freedom and equality of all citizens under the rule of law regardless of religion, sect, ethnic group and gender. The Syrian people waited almost 50 years for a chance -- and it was ruined because the initiative was handed to those with no interest in democracy or democratic values. The West failed to foster any genuine democratic movements from the beginning. If it had asked every party to commit to equality for sects, religions, ethnic groups and both genders, those opposed to basic freedoms would quickly have been exposed. We must not make the same mistake again.

In the meantime, the campaigning in elections elsewhere in the world continues. The juggernaut of international media attention switches to the Ukraine. Back in Syria the bombs continue to fall, and the death toll rises. The regime will be reelected in record time. But the tragedy is that even if the elections were bona fide, there is absolutely no Western support for the majority of liberal, democratic Syrians whose interests in their own country continue to be ignored.

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