Election won’t stop Syria entering generations-long war, says UN

As Syrians go to the polls, diplomats in New York say vote is no route to lasting peace

Syrians are heading to the polls for a vote that is expected to return President Bashar Al Assad to power for a fourth seven-year term. AP
Syrians are heading to the polls for a vote that is expected to return President Bashar Al Assad to power for a fourth seven-year term. AP

UN peace envoy Geir Pedersen said Syria's elections will not help to end its civil war and avoid a "protracted conflict" condemning generations to chaos and destitution.

He addressed the UN Security Council on Wednesday as Syrians went to the polls. The vote is expected to return President Bashar Al Assad to power for a fourth term, despite a decade of war that has left the country in tatters.

The Norwegian diplomat said the ballot was taking place counter to rules laid down by the UN’s 15-nation council that call for a new constitution and UN election monitors. He said progress towards a peace deal remained elusive.

“The broad contours of a political solution to the conflict are well understood by key stakeholders, yet none is willing to take the first step,” Mr Pedersen said.

“If key players are more invested in conflict management than conflict resolution, I fear that Syria will become another protracted conflict, lasting generations.”

As the council met in New York, Syrians were casting votes in the second presidential election since the start of the decade-long civil war that has killed more than 388,000 and displaced half the pre-war population.

Mr Al Assad symbolically cast his ballot in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta – a former stronghold for the rebels who have fought to topple him.

This is the first election since Mr Al Assad regained control over most of Syria's governorates, excluding Idlib and some north-western regions on the border with Turkey.

The US and several European nations said the election was “neither free nor fair”. It is being held under the terms of Syria’s 2012 constitution, which says those standing must have lived in the country for the past 10 years, effectively barring most opposition figures.

It also required parliament – stacked with members of Mr Al Assad’s ruling party – to approve all candidates.

Mr Al Assad’s rivals are former deputy Cabinet minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, head of the National Democratic Front, a small – officially sanctioned – opposition party.

Dozens of other presidential hopefuls submitted requests for candidacy but were rejected.

Mr Al Assad was elected to his current seven-year term in 2014 with 88.7 per cent of the vote.

A UN-backed committee comprised representatives of Mr Al Assad’s government, opposition groups and civil society has met five times since October 2019 to draft a new constitution but has made little progress.

Few analysts expect the committee to complete the document. Fighting in Syria has largely ceased and forces backing Mr Al Assad, with Russia and Iranian support, have recaptured most of the country, giving him little reason to seriously negotiate with opponents.

He also enjoys the support of veto-wielding council members Russia and China, which have repeatedly torpedoed western efforts to pressure Damascus.

Still, Mr Pedersen said there was opportunity for progress.

“Unresolved conflicts tend to explode in ways we cannot predict,” he told the council.

“There are great dangers in not seizing the opportunity that the current period affords us.

"Despite the many catastrophes Syrians face, there is relatively more calm on the ground than there has been in previous years.”

Updated: May 26, 2021 08:19 PM

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