Very few regular observers of the Arab world’s intricate politics would have expected to see the day Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for elections in an Arab country.
Just a few days ago, Khamenei called for elections in Syria as the way to solve the crisis that has brought the country to its knees, with terrible repercussions in the region and beyond. "The solution to the Syrian question is elections, and for this it is necessary to stop military and financial aid to the opposition,” Iran’s Supreme Leader is reported to have said during the annual address to Iran’s diplomats.
The Iranian call for a new round of elections in Syria after last year’s came, at first sight, to support the Russian position. In late October, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, had argued in an interview with Russian state TV that all “external players” trying to resolve the Syrian crisis should push for a political settlement involving “both parliamentary and presidential elections.”
The Russian need to push for a favourable outcome of the Syrian crisis gained a sense of urgency with the growing weakness of Assad’s forces, as well as the advances by the various armed opposition groups and ISIS.Manuel Almeida
Lavrov’s comments followed Bashar al-Assad’s surprising visit to Moscow and, save for the mention of presidential elections, reiterated a point Vladimir Putin had already made. In September, the President of Russia had told reporters that Assad was ready to hold parliamentary elections and share power with the "healthy" Syrian opposition.
If the Syrian presidential election in June last year is anything to go by, another election of this sort would make a mockery of all Syrians unwilling and unable to participate, including the Syrian opposition, the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people, as well as those who live in rebel- or ISIS-held areas.
According to Syria’s constitution, Assad was required to seek re-election to remain in power before his second seven-year presidential term expired in July 2014. Thus, elections were held amidst the brutal civil war.
The election, held only in regime-controlled areas, was backed and endorsed by Russia and Iran. It featured only three candidates: Assad himself and two others who tried to pose as independents. The result was predictable: according to the government’s version, Assad got almost 88.7% percent of the vote, while the two so-called challengers (Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar) together gathered 7.5%.
Perhaps the most sordid detail of all were the various parliamentarians and other figures from populist regimes (including Brazil, Uganda and Venezuela) who came to observe the election and endorsed it as “free and fair”, as did Iranian and Russian observers. The fact the winner was a mass-murderer directly and indirectly responsible for the death of over a quarter of a million people and counting was irrelevant for them.
Contrary to what President of Iran, Hasan Rowhani, claimed before-hand about what kind of election Syria needed, the process was anything but “free and fair”. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman still noted the election was "naturally not 100 percent democratic" given the circumstances, but then concluded there were no reasons to question the legitimacy of the election.
Russia, the wild card
Until recently, the argument for holding elections as an almost miraculous formula to address political turmoil in the Middle East was a typical feature of Western governments’ and organizations’ approach to the region. This approach had lost some its appeal after it was applied in Afghanistan to elect Hamid Karzai or in the chaos of Iraq following the U.S. led invasion, but to an extent the Arab uprisings revived the idea.
So why are the leaders of both Russia and Iran, who have a peculiar and rather instrumental relationship with the concept of elections itself, now claiming that voting is the only way for the Syrians to get out of their quagmire?
The timing could explain much. With direct talks involving all relevant regional and global players (for the first time since 2011) set to proceed, Iran and Russia are pushing for an outcome that in their perspective most suits their interests while they still have the ability to do so.
The Russian need to push for a favourable outcome of the Syrian crisis gained a sense of urgency with the growing weakness of Assad’s forces, as well as the advances by the various armed opposition groups and ISIS. This precipitated the Russian intervention to prop-up the regime, which in turn allowed the various pro-regime forces including the pro-Iranian militias to mount a counter-offensive.
An election in the near future could only result in one of two outcomes: the victory of Assad or an approved regime insider. Either scenario should allow Iran and Russia to continue to defend their key strategic interests in Syria. It could, as some suspect, provide more ground to a plan to push for a de-facto Alawite-controlled state in Western Syria that would continue to leave the doors of the Eastern Mediterranean to Russians and Iranians.
However, things may be more complicated. Russia and Iran might be calling for an election but it is unclear whether they want the same thing out of that election and when it should take place. Iran is unlikely to welcome an election that bars Assad and his various family members from running, whereas Russia might be amenable to the possibility of a new leadership that could appeal to the moderate opposition.
Earlier this week, the words of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova that keeping Assad in power was neither crucial nor a matter of principle for Russia received wide media coverage. Yet, as early as 2012, Putin himself said: “We aren’t concerned about Assad’s fate, we understand that the same family has been in power for 40 years and changes are obviously needed.” The question remains, does he mean it?
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.