At the end of December 2020, the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad said during an official visit to the Russian capital Moscow that the presidential elections in Syria [which are scheduled to take place in the middle of 2021] “will be held at the normal time without any delay”, stressing that they will be held in isolation from the results of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC).
Damascus’ insistence on the elections
The ruling regime in Damascus clearly does not care about the work of the SCC. Indeed, it was the regime that sent to the SCC a delegation that was said by President Bashar al-Assad in a press interview at the end of 2019 to be identifiable with the vision of the Damascus government without being an official representative thereof. This means that regardless of being serious about its commitment to the SCC, the government is concerned with passing the line of continued control over the government by maintaining the implementation of the 2012 Constitution which guarantees the validity of Bashar al-Assad’s presence in power for a second and final seven-year term according to the Constitution, which means his stay in power until 2028, after which it becomes possible to think of a new figure in the presidency.
That is why Damascus is keen to slow down the SCC’s work and is indifferent to the achievement of any progress in its work. Likewise, Damascus clearly insists on holding the presidential elections on time in order to avoid any obstacles that may hinder holding them if they are postponed and an amended/new constitution is passed.
Damascus does not want any radical change that would negate the ruling system in Syria and be entirely imposed on it from outside. This is also rejected by Moscow which considers any change that is not introduced by it, and which does not have the tacit approval of Damascus, as a loss that would lead to shuffling its cards in the region and confuse its understandings with Turkey. Therefore, Moscow seeks to hold new presidential elections that would renew Assad's rule and then begin to work to meet Western demands to ensure the start of the reconstruction phase. This would also be in the interests of Damascus and would ensure that Russia's role in the Syrian file is not curtailed. The continued work of the SCC along with the delay of the presidential elections would lead to the loss by the Damascus government of everything it sought after the Russian military intervention in September 2015, perhaps mainly building the deteriorating economy, benefiting from reconstruction funds to revive the Syrian economy that is subject to Moscow, in addition to the loss by Damascus of new cards at the political level that it could use during the coming period and with which it could bargain with the other parties involved in the Syrian issue that are opposed to its Russian ally.
The 2021 elections, if they do take place, shall be a declaration of victory for Damascus, so that the results of the elections would be a symbolic message to the international community, namely that the Syrians want Assad in power again, even as the issues of reconstruction and the return of refugees would be considered governmental challenges that are completely void of any political dimension.
Russian solution and constitutional obstacles
The statement of the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad in Moscow indicates that Russia agrees with the content of his remarks about the presidential elections. This means in one way or another that Russia is preparing for a new phase that would be compatible with the holding of the presidential elections, in which it needs to overcome the obstacles of the Syrian opposition’s participation therein in order to add some kind of legitimacy and international acceptance thereto.
Led by the US, Western countries had clear conditions for getting involved in the reconstruction phase (the stage that preoccupies Russia during the current period), the most important of which being to reach a real and lasting political solution in Syria. Perhaps the Russian strategy in the Syrian issue has become devoted to overcoming the sequence of Security Council Resolution 2254 and its reformulation/rescheduling as desierd by Russia. Thus, it began by insisting on the start of the work of the SCC and overlooked the Transitional Governing Body (TGB). Presently, it may seek to complete this strategy by holding presidential elections in which a part of the opposition supported by Ankara would take part. Perhaps the decision by the opposition Syrian Coalition to establish an electoral commission and its later embarrassed backing down therefrom are an introduction to this.
Russia is aware of the constitutional impediments to the possibility of participation in the elections by any opposition figure who has resided outside the country for 10 years or more. That figure would face an obstacle according to the 2012 Constitution, namely that a person is not allowed to run who has not resided in Syria for a period of not less than 10 continuous and uninterrupted years when submitting the candidacy application. In addition, holders of a second nationality in addition to the Syrian nationality are not allowed to run. Furthermore, according to the 2012 Constitution, a candidate should have Syrian nationality by birth, be of parents who possess Syrian nationality by birth, and not be married to a non-Syrian. The current Syrian Constitution also requires those wishing to run for office to obtain written support from 35 Members of Parliament (MPs).
Thus, the previous constitutional articles constitute a constitutional obstacle that may push Russia to urge Damascus to bring about a constitutional change that annuls those articles or suspends their effect for those who wish to run for the presidency in the upcoming elections.
While both the European Union (EU) and the US had announced earlier their rejection of the legitimacy of any presidential elections in Syria before the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254, the interests that govern international relations may be greater than the statements that indicated the illegality of the elections without embarking on a political transition process. In this context, it should be noted that the priorities of the new US President Joe Biden may be to end the crises and tensions in the region, particularly dealing with the issue of Tehran's regional influence and its nuclear programme, as well as dealing with the intractable counterterrorism file and the issue of the foreign military presence in northeastern Syria. On the other hand, the coronavirus pandemic crisis and the refugee file seem to be among the most important issues that plague Europeans who seek to solve the complex of refugees staying in their countries as long as the solution is intractable in Syria.
The presidential elections in Syria, which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad insists that they be held on time, constitute a new political pressure card in the hands of Moscow and Damascus. However, recognition by the international community of the legitimacy of the presidential elections depends more on the participation of the Syrian opposition therein than on any other factors, which could indeed take place.
Hamdi Bashir | 18 Feb 2021
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