On May 28, polls opened at Syrian embassies around the region for expatriate voting for the country’s presidential elections, and will remain open to 19:00 (local time) in each country. Syrians living in Syria are slated to vote on June 3, however elections will only be held in government-held areas of the country. Incumbent President Bashar al-Assad is challenged by two relatively unknown candidates, Maher Abdel Hafij Hajjar and Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri. Twenty-four candidates registered for the elections, however, only Assas, Hajjar, and al-Nuri, were approved by the Supreme Constitutional Court based on criteria outlined in a recently passed electoral law.
- At the time of writing on May 28, heavy traffic has been reported in Beirut, Lebanon, resulting from the significant influx of Syrians to the city to vote in the polls. Congestion has particularly been reported in the cities southern suburbs. Lebanon presently hosts
over 1 million Syrian refugees.
- In Jordan, a heavy security presence has been reported in the vicinity of the Syrian Embassy. On May 26, Amman declared Syrian’s Ambassador to Jordan persona non grata, ordering his departure from the country within 24 hours. In response the Jordanian Charge d’Affaires was expelled from Damascus. However, Jordan has indicated that Syria will be permitted to appoint a new ambassador, and that elections would not be disrupted. Syria’s ambassador was expelled after “repeated insults to Jordan and its leadership, institutions and citizens”. Jordan presently hosts over 600,000 Syrian refugees.
- The UAE, as well as France, Germany, and Belgium have barred the elections from taking place. Over 30,000 Syrians living in the UAE registered to vote. Semi-official media sources in Syria have indicated that at least 200,000 Syrians abroad are slated to vote at 39 different embassies.
Assessments: Presidential elections part of broader regime strategy to project stability amidst increasing on-the-ground control over prominent cities, central and northeastern provinces
- The Assad regime’s decision to hold presidential elections has drawn sharp criticism from Western powers who remain committed to negotiating a political transfer of power in Syria. However, following the failure of the Geneva Peace Process in late 2013, and amidst the regime’s continued on the ground advances, reports have indicated that the U.S. and other Western powers are steadily increasing their military support of moderate rebel forces. That said, such support likely aims to realign the balance of power in the country, rather than seek to forward a rebel military victory, as Western powers have continually expressed opposition to a military solution for the Syrian conflict.
- In this context, we assess that the holding of presidential elections is part of a broader Assad regime strategy aiming to project an image of increasing stability in the country, which has been entrenched in civil hostilities since 2011. On-the-ground circumstances, however, lend relative credence to the regime’s attempts, highlighted by a series of strategic gains over the past six months, including the recapture of the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, Homs city, Aleppo prison, and advances in outlying areas of Damascus. Additionally, amidst rebel gains in southern areas of the country, the regime has announced a Hezbollah-led offensive in southern Syria in an attempt to reassert control over the Quneitra region. Weakened by intra-rebel fighting in the country’s north, Syria’s southern quadrant remains one of the last moderate rebel bastions, the loss of which would pose serious constraints on Syria’s moderate political opposition and on-the-ground fighting factions.
- The aftermath of elections, which Assad is near-guaranteed to win, may be witnessed by increasingly assertive policies from the Syrian regime, underlined by the stalled adherence to the U.N. chemical weapon disarmament plan, with the regime maintaining approximately eight percent of its declared chemical weapons arsenal. Furthermore, in recent months there have been increasing accusations of chemical weapons attacks involving the use of chlorine gas, a substance not included in the U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) disarmament plan. While the use of chlorine gas remains unconfirmed, both the U.K. and France have indicated that they have evidence which point towards its use. In this context, we continue to assess that the regime’s maintenance of a limited chemical arsenal, and potential tactical use of non-priority one or two chemical agents, serves to focus international attention on the regime’s potential and continued chemical capabilities, thereby offsetting pressure on the use of conventional weaponry.
- The regime has thus employed such weapons to impose a strategy of siege warfare on rebel held areas across the country, maintaining strict blockades while carrying out aerial and often indiscriminate bombardments. Such tactics have led to the surrender of several prominent locals, including in the outskirts of Damascus and in Homs. In the coming months, recent gains on the outskirts of Aleppo, may additionally facilitate the Assad regime’s advance into the country’s second largest city, with regime sources indicating Aleppo will be once again under Assad’s control by the June 3 elections. While this is unlikely, it remains possible that the lifting of the Aleppo prison siege will permit the regime to intensify its blockade and bombardments of Aleppo, pressuring for the withdrawal of rebel forces from the city. Reports of increasing Western military support for moderate factions, may in turn increase the intensity of such sieges, given regime forces likely aim to subdue strategic positions prior to the reinforcement of rebel caches.
- Thus over the coming months, hostilities in Syria are likely to remain focused on the southern and northern fronts, in the Quneitra and Deraa provinces, and Aleppo province respectively. Furthermore, in the eastern Deir Ez-Zor and Raqaa provinces, hostilities between the al-Qaeda aligned al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are likely to continue, as both factions vie for relative influence in such rebel held locals. Thus while it is unlikely that the Assad regime will efficiently reassert full control over Syria in the near future, recent advances and the forthcoming re-election of Assad suggest that it may remain able to control and govern over strategic areas in the central and northeastern coastal provinces, including Damascus, Homs, and potentially Aleppo, Syria’s three predominant urban centers.