Confidence vote

Print edition : July 11, 2014

President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, casting their vote at a polling station in Damascus on June 3. Photo: Syrian Presidency via Facebook/AP

Damaged buildings in Aleppo's al-Ansari neighbourhood June 14. Photo: Hosam Katan /REUTERS

Syrians living in Lebanon wait at the Masnaa border crossing to enter Syria and vote in the presidential election. Photo: HASSAN ABDALLAH/REUTERS

A January 7 photograph posted on a militant website shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked ISIS in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The ISIS has expanded its operations to Syria. Photo: AP

The presidential election has once again proved that the majority of Syrians are behind President Bashar al-Assad despite the miseries caused by the civil war.

AFTER the recent presidential election in Syria, even the Western media had to admit that President Bashar al-Assad continued to enjoy massive support among his people. The election, on June 3, witnessed a huge turnout of Syrians, not only in their war-ravaged country but also in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq where millions live as refugees.

Syrian diplomats said that they were surprised at the outpouring of support for Assad among their displaced compatriots living in squalid refugee camps outside the country’s borders. Their participation in the election, despite threats of violence and death, is a strong signal of their desire to see peace return to their homeland. Syrians in Kuwait and other Gulf countries and also in European countries chartered flights to Damascus to cast their vote.

A third of Syria’s population of around 23 million has been displaced owing to the war in their country instigated by outside powers. Over 150,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the conflict so far.

The Syrian constitution was amended in 2012 to allow multiparty elections. Unlike in 2002 and 2007, Assad was not the sole candidate for the presidency. The names of two other candidates were on the ballot this time—Mahel Abdul Hafez Hajjar from the Syrian Communist Party and Hassan Abdullah al Nouri, a businessman. Voting took place all over Syria except in the province of Raqqa, where extremist militant groups continue to hold sway. The turnout, according to Syria’s Election Commission, was more than 73 per cent. The victory gives President Assad another seven years in office.

The efforts of the West and Syria’s regional enemies were to portray the war as a sectarian conflict that pitted the majority Sunnis against minorities such as the Alawites and Christians. The election results have conclusively shown that the President, an Alawite by birth, has the support of the majority of the Syrian people, cutting across the sectarian barriers. Assad got 88.7 per cent of the votes polled. In contrast, another presidential election, in Egypt, drew a lacklustre response, with the majority of the electorate deciding to stay away. The election results have once again proved that the majority of Syrians are behind President Assad despite the horrendous cost that the war has inflicted on their country. The secular Sunnis never gave up on him. Most of the three million members of the ruling Baath Party are Sunni.

U.S. reaction

Despite evidence to the contrary, the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, chose to describe the election as “a big zero”. The U.S. had no qualms about supporting the elections in Ukraine which too were held under civil-war-like conditions. Elections were also held in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were certified as fair and free by the West. Kerry and his boss, President Barack Obama, have been repeatedly predicting for the last couple of years that President Assad’s days in office “are numbered”.

In a recent speech, delivered at the West Point Military Academy, Obama once again stuck to the tired script. He said that the U.S. would continue to “help the Syrian people stand up to a dictator who bombs and starves his own people”. But Western media reports were graceful enough to concede that Assad has the support of the majority of Syrians, including the Sunnis, who constitute more than 60 per cent of the population. The Associated Press in a report said that the election results “underscored the considerable support that President Bashar Assad still enjoys from the population, including many in the Sunni majority community”. In fact, polling data since the start of the conflict in 2011 have shown that the majority was always behind Assad and his government. Syrians voted overwhelmingly for the government in a February 2012 referendum and in the May 2012 parliamentary elections that followed.

Popular support

Without the support of the people, it would have been difficult for Assad to survive the determined onslaught of the West and its regional allies. Assad presides over one of the few remaining secular governments in the region. The Syrian people, by voting en masse, have shown that they do not want their country to be either drawn into a sectarian conflict or become a vassal state of the West. The Syrian army is making steady progress in the fight to root out the remnants of the jehadi forces from the country’s territory. The city of Homs has been liberated fully. Fighters belonging to myriad Takfiri and jehadi groups, such as al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), remain holed up in some parts of the country and are increasingly fighting with their backs to the wall. In the areas they control, Sharia law has been introduced, opponents are executed in public, and Christians are forced to pay a protection tax. Before the Syrians went to the polls, there were random suicide bombing and mortar attacks on election meetings. More than 50 people were killed in a mortar attack in the town of Deraa during an election rally.

The Americans and their regional allies are yet to see the writing on the wall and are still hoping to turn the tide militarily against the Syrian government. The Obama administration is now openly arming and training the so-called moderate groups that once fought under the umbrella of the “Free Syrian Army”. That force was initially propped up by the rich Gulf Arab states along with Turkey and the West. Senior Obama administration officials have claimed that the new fighting force they are training in countries such as Jordan and Turkey will take on not only the Syrian army but also Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as al Nusra and the ISIS.

Western jehadis

Thousands of Westerners, including citizens of the U.S., France and the United Kingdom, have joined these groups to wage jehad in Syria. U.S. intelligence agencies have estimated that more than 26,000 extremists are fighting inside Syria, including 7,000 foreign nationals. The British and the French reportedly constitute the greatest proportion of Westerners fighting in Syria. They are said to number more than 1,100. Hundreds of Belgian, Dutch and Scandinavians are also fighting in Syria. There are around 70 from the U.S. itself. The U.S. National Intelligence Agency Director, James Clapper, is now warning that many of these fighters want not only to bring down Assad but also to turn their guns later on the West, including against the American homeland.

Initially, the Western governments looked the other way but now with many of them returning to their countries highly indoctrinated, alarm bells have started ringing in Western capitals. Videos have been circulating showing British and American citizens going on suicide bombing missions inside Syria. A French citizen who saw action with the ISIS in Syria returned to Europe and killed three Jews visiting a Holocaust museum in Brussels in May this year.

Now Obama claims that one more reason why he wants to engineer regime change in Damascus is to deter Al Qaeda-affiliated groups from crossing over from Syria’s borders and attacking Western targets. “As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases,” Obama told the military cadets at West Point. It was an indirect acknowledgement by the U.S. commander-in-chief that the fire that his country had helped start in Syria had the capacity to singe the West ultimately. Western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq had given a tremendous fillip to extremist groups such as Al Qaeda. The Obama administration is now blaming Turkey and the Gulf states for turning a blind eye to the influx of foreign fighters affiliated to extremist groups into Syria.

The so-called moderate “Islamic Front” which the U.S. is seeking to bolster inside Syria is a weak fighting force. According to reports, the al Nusra front is doing most of the fighting against the Syrian government forces. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Obama administration is planning to institute a new military training programme for the “moderate” Syrian opposition forces, to mould them into an effective fighting unit. This will supplement the training and equipment programme the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been providing. Obama had authorised the CIA to get openly involved a year ago. The Syrian opposition has demanded more substantive help from Washington in the form of anti-aircraft missiles and other lethal weaponry.

The Obama administration is caught in a cleft stick. Under the changed circumstances, it does not want the extremist forces, which are doing the bulk of the fighting, to emerge victorious. At the same time, it is aware that the “moderate forces” it is backing will never be in a position to change the equation on the battlefield. There seems to be some rethink in Washington as the U.S. scales back its military presence in the region. Kerry, during his recent visit to Lebanon, made polite noises about Hizbollah, saying that it has an important role to play in finding a “legitimate” political solution to the conflict in Syria. The Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, retorted that a solution “could only start and end with Assad”. In a pointed rebuke to Kerry, Nasrallah said that the election in Syria was not “a big fat zero” to the millions of enthusiastic voters there. He was speaking after the election results in Syria were announced. The U.S. State Department continues to insist that it wants a political dispensation in Syria “that does not include Assad”.

Saudi Arabia, the key regional backer of the rebels, has relented in its tough diplomatic posture towards Iran. It has now extended an invitation to the Iranian Foreign Minister to visit Riyadh. It is Iran’s and Hizbollah’s crucial support, along with that of Russia, that has helped Syria withstand the massive foreign military meddling in its internal affairs. Iran’s Supreme Leader had indirectly blamed countries like Saudi Arabia for backing “Takfiris” and other extremists who consider those who do not follow their interpretation of Islam infidels.