Syria’s dirty secret is that Assad could win in a fair election

The revolution in Syria is far from finished, writes Faisal Al Yafai. But the opposition must understand that if they cannot provide a vision of life after Assad, then millions of Syrians will vote for him

Syrian citizens walking past an election campaign billboard with photo of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, 11 May 2014. EPA/SANA HANDOUT
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There is a presidential election in Syria and Bashar Al Assad is going to win. The only question is by how much.

As a presidential candidate, Mr Al Assad has done quite well. He has overseen a truce that has seen one of the country’s largest cities return to government control. He has maintained his relationships with his allies in Iran and Hizbollah. He still cuts a man of the people stance, in marked contrast to the extremists who seek to run the country.

He is, above all, a known quantity, a man who has led the country through difficult times, promises stability and is backed by an army that can deliver it. All in all, Mr Al Assad looks like a credible candidate.

Though only, of course, if you overlook the fact that he caused the civil war that rages today.

But there is a serious reason to understand why Mr Al Assad is seen by many within and without Syria as a credible candidate. Because many will vote for him.

Certainly, that is because there is no real alternative, because the only places in which voting will take place are under government control, because 40 years of propaganda have removed any alternative – and because the Assad regime has spent three years demonstrating what it means by the slogan “Assad or we burn the country”.

But the dirty secret in Syria today is that, if the presidential election were free and fair, Bashar Al Assad would still win.

However unpalatable it is, the man who has overseen the systematic destruction of the country, who has made more refugees than anyone else in the Middle East this century, is still popular. We ought to ask why.

The last time Mr Al Assad faced a popular vote, in 2007, I was in Syria. Buildings and highways were emblazoned with the Arabic word for “Yes”. Although billed as a presidential election, it wasn’t: the parliament had merely proposed that Mr Al Assad be nominated as president for a second term and the public were asked to ratify this decision. Unsurprisingly, they did, all 97 per cent of them.

Yet even the opposition inside the country conceded that, were there a free vote, Mr Al Assad would still have won. The regime was popular – not 97 per cent popular, but popular enough for a majority.

To understand why, and to understand why millions will vote for Mr Al Assad in three weeks, it is important to understand how Syrians saw themselves then and how they see their country today.

In 2007, and even up to 2011, life was getting better in Syria. It wasn’t moving fast enough and the country was riddled with corruption, but for many of the urban middle-class in Damascus and Aleppo, life was better than it had been. Syria was safer than any neighbouring country. The chaos of Iraq next door felt far away.

The uprising changed that. Many who supported it in the beginning, when it looked like it would swiftly topple a long-standing regime, regretted their position as months became a year and a year became three.

It is one thing to fight for an idea: the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square had no thought who would follow Hosni Mubarak, they just felt it had to get better. Similarly for the Syrian revolutionaries. But gradually, what started as a dream took on a form: no longer were thawra and hurriya, revolution and freedom, slogans. They became personified, first in the person of Mohammed Morsi and then in the faces and actions of the Islamists who flooded into Syria.

The secular society – enforced, certainly, but existing – that the Assad regime has created was under threat. And who would defend it? The politicians of the Syrian opposition? They were unknowns, long in exile, squabbling over who would sit on a throne not yet vacated. To Syrians inside the country, they looked like they were arguing over dividing up the spoils of a battle they were not fighting.

The future these groups offered was unknown or unpalatable. Even those who don’t accept the propaganda that the rebels are terrorists can accept that the regime is brutal and murderous – and still prefer it to the unknown rebels and lawless gangs that promise to follow the regime.

For those who have not suffered loved ones killed or in exile – or for those who have but who blame the Syrian rebels for their deaths, directly or indirectly – life with Mr Al Assad is still preferable to the unknown without him.

That should make the Syrian opposition and the international community think very seriously about their policies, about their outreach and about what message they are sending to the people inside the country. Even the flow of weapons to the rebels has a political dimension, because support will follow success and success requires arms. By arming the moderates, the international community will empower them.

The Syrian civil war is not over. The withdrawal from Homs did not end it and the presidential election, regardless of the declarations of Mr Al Assad, Hizbollah or Iran, will not end the revolution. For millions, there is no way back. After seeing their families killed, seeing their children scrabbling in the dirt for food, seeing their neighbourhoods bombed to pieces, there is no accommodation with a regime. There is only rebellion.

But the opposition must understand that there are millions inside the country who need a message, who need a vision of what Syria without Mr Al Assad would look like. If they cannot fill in the blanks for Syrians, they cannot expect Syrians to fight for the unknown.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai