The start of the week brought with it two important milestones for Syria. On Sunday, the parliament in Damascus, loyal to President Bashar Al Assad, announced that presidential elections would be held on May 26. Even after 10 years of an uprising in which half a million died and half the country was displaced, the result is pre-ordained. Mr Al Assad will win.
A day later, Michel Kilo, a long-time dissident, intellectual and political prisoner who pioneered calls for democratic reform under Mr Al Assad’s regime and that of his father Hafez, died in exile in Paris from Covid-19. His death was mourned by a broad swathe of Syrians in exile and opponents of the regime who saw in Kilo a principled voice for freedom.
The alignment of the two events brought into sharp contrast the dire straits in which Syria finds itself. Its traumatic revolution became a civil war, there has been little progress on any of the uprising’s goals for reform and the road ahead appears to be even darker.
Let us start with the elections, which are being held next month under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis that appears to have no end in sight. The lack of progress in ongoing talks between Syrian factions in Geneva to achieve a new constitution has meant a dearth of reconstruction funds to rebuild the country. This is due to the intransigence of the regime in making any compromises with the opposition.
The government feels no need to do so because it won the war, but stringent sanctions, particularly by the US under the so-called Caesar Act, have all but arrested the possibility of an economic recovery and the government’s return to the good graces of the international community. Without the prospect of a recovery, in addition to the problem of widespread corruption in a country now run by victorious warlords, Syria’s economy has languished, unemployment has risen, the currency has collapsed and basic goods have become too expensive for people. The underreported toll of the pandemic has also contributed greatly to the population’s suffering, and it is unclear when vaccines may become widely available.
These are the second presidential elections since the war broke out. The first were in 2014, and Mr Al Assad, of course, won them handily, with over 90 per cent of the vote. The difference was, however, that Mr Al Assad’s victory in the war was not so assured back then, and the win was necessary to create a halo of legitimacy and “prove” that he was popular at a time when rebel groups were vying to uproot him. This time, the point is to rub his victory in, as evidenced by the rules of the game, which guarantee that only he can win another seven-year term.
These rules include, among others, that the candidates must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years. That, of course, eliminates the possibility of dissidents running – most of them fled the country during the conflict to avoid torture and death. Another rule requires that candidates win the endorsement of 35 MPs, in a parliament dominated by Baath party apparatchiks, loyalist oligarchs, militia leaders and war profiteers.
This sorry state is not what Kilo had in mind when he was jailed in the 1980s as a pro-democracy activist under Hafez Al Assad, when he took part in the hopeful Damascus Spring reform movement in Bashar’s early years or when he signed the Damascus Declaration in 2005 with 250 opposition figures calling for peaceful, gradual reform, landing him in jail again.
Kilo was an early supporter of the 2011 uprising, and warned against armed resistance to the regime, arguing that it would ultimately lead to civil war. For his troubles, and his focus on dialogue as the primary avenue for change, he was forced into exile, dying far away from home. While the uprising’s military defeat has been sealed for years now, his death, so soon after the announcement of sham elections, seemed to underscore a deeper sense of defeat, as though the very idea of resistance to a regime that brought so much suffering and destruction was itself dying.
As I scrolled through the tributes for Kilo on social media, one translated excerpt of his writings stopped me in my tracks. In it, he recounts an experience in prison, where a guard takes him to another cell where a woman has been living for years with her young boy, who was born in detention. The guard, at great risk, asks Kilo to tell the child a story.
As he begins telling him the first story involving a bird, the boy is bewildered, and Kilo realises he has never seen a bird. He did not know what the Sun or the mountains were either. He did not even have an official name, having not been registered in any records. After some minutes of silence, the guard calls Kilo back to his cell and asks if he managed to tell the boy a story, but his own tears are answer enough.
Kilo’s death, and those of others like him, may now extinguish the prospect of seeing the sunlight outside the prison of tyranny. I hope it doesn’t.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National