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‘Nothing to do with democracy’

Jun 09,2014 - Last updated at Jun 09,2014

It is hard to figure out how votes could be cast as the Syrian air force jets were bombarding various areas in the country with crude explosive devices.

In war-torn Syria, holding the presidential election under such circumstances and against the backdrop of a protracted bloody conflict was a futile exercise. It will not change the course of the conflict in any meaningful way.

To be sure, President Bashar Assad seeks to send the message to his opponents, whether within Syria or without, that the three years of war have not demoralised his regime.

What distinguished the latest election from the previous ones is the fact that two unknown contenders — Hassan Al Nori, a businessman and a former Cabinet member, and Mahir Hajjar, a lawmaker — ran against Assad.

If anything, their acceptance to run was just window dressing, a gimmick that was to give the impression of a free and fair election.

Assad is obviously taking advantage of US President Barack Obama’s hesitant approach and the full support of Hizbollah and Iran to decide the fate of the battle.

Thus, holding elections at this critical time is designed to send the clear message that Assad will not step down anytime soon.

There is near consensus among members of the international community that Assad will not be part of any future political settlement.

Assad and his backers understand this very well and so political settlement is not on their agenda.

True, Assad pays lip service to the notion of political settlement, but he has been meticulously working to undermine the conditions necessary for such a settlement.

For a political settlement to succeed, there is need to change the balance of power between the opposition and the regime.

Former American ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said his country had been reluctant to lend support to the opposition from the get go.

Had the US provided the rebels with lethal weapons, the Syrian regime would have been pushed to accept a political settlement and Assad would have been long gone.

Hence, short of taking this step, Assad will most likely continue his current defiant approach.

It seems that Ford is not alone in this assessment. Hillary Clinton’s new book, titled “Hard Choices”, reveals that she supported the idea of arming moderate rebels with lethal weapons but Obama rejected it.

Obama’s insistence that America will not get involved in any new conflict in the Middle East emboldened Assad’s regional backers who stepped up their financial and military support to prop up the regime.

Were it not for the support offered by Iran and Hizbollah, Assad would have acted differently.

To be sure, the rebels never asked the US to put boots on the ground. All they asked for were weapons that could make a difference and could face the lethal Syrian air force, but Obama did not budge.

The Syrian regime manipulated the Western fears that lethal weapons might fall into the hands of radical rebels.

Assad and his backers frame the conflict as one between government troops and terrorists. This struck a cord in the West.

Even at the Geneva conference the Syrian delegation played up the terrorist card, hoping that the West would subcontract Assad to fight the terrorists.

Against this backdrop, Assad’s election is hardly a surprise. He believes that there are big chances that the West would accept him as a partner — albeit a junior one — in the battle against terrorism.

The electoral exercise, therefore, was designed to rehabilitate Assad and to legitimise him in a changing region. The election held last week had nothing to do with democracy.

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