Syria election holds few surprises after years of war
Campaign posters for Bashar al-Assad line the streets of Damascus, alongside those of two obscure rivals, but no one doubts that Wednesday’s elections will extend his presidency despite a 10-year war that has left Syria in ruins.
Ruled by his family for five decades, Syria is now barely recognizable from the nation Assad, now 55, took over in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
When he started, the young ophthalmologist, who was groomed late after his older brother died in a car crash, vowed to move on from his father’s iron grip – offering opponents space and openings to Western enemies.
But reforms were quickly buried and protests against his authoritarian rule erupted in 2011 as the Arab Spring swept through the region, turning into a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and driven 11 million from their homes, or about half of the population.
Assad has regained control of much of his country, where some voters will vote this week in polling stations surrounded by bombed out buildings. But he only achieved this goal with decisive military help from Russia and Iran.
“If war is imposed on our agenda, that does not mean preventing us from doing our duty,” he declared on his campaign’s Facebook account, which has the slogan “Hope through work”.
But, for a part of the country, their employment hardly allows to buy enough food. A shawerma sandwich, made with chicken or roasted meat on a skewer, was once the kind of snack people would mindlessly grab at a street cafe.
“Can you believe a shawerma costs almost half of my salary?” Ali Habib, 33, said, saying it cost 20,000 Syrian pounds, while his monthly salary as a teacher in a public school was 50,000 pounds, just over $ 16 at the unofficial rate.
Subsidized food has become a lifeline for many. Habib, who like others in Syria cited in this article contacted a Reuters correspondent abroad, had to sell furniture to feed his wife and two daughters.
MESSAGE TO THE WEST
Western governments and national opponents of Assad, many of whom are now overseas because they say it’s the only way to avoid Syria’s ubiquitous secret police, or mukhabarat, view the vote as a affair choreographed to endorse his reign.
“The country Assad is ruling is the shadow of the country that was Syria 10 years ago,” said Wael Sawah, a former political prisoner in exile in the United States. “The structure of society has changed and so has the economy. It is a shadow of what Syria used to be.”
Some Syrians say the vote is meant to tell the United States, Europe and others that Assad is not interrupted and that Syria is still functioning, even amid pockets of fighting, mainly in the north .
“These elections are aimed at the West, taking the pattern of Western-style elections in one way or another to send a ‘I am like you” message, said Maan Abdul Salam, who heads the think tank. Syrian ETANA.
There has been nothing western style in the past results. In the 2014 poll, according to official figures, Assad won nearly 89% of the vote with a turnout of over 73%, even though it took place amid heavy fighting. Critics dismissed it as a sham.
This year, Assad’s rivals are former Deputy Minister Abdallah Saloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, leader of a small, officially sanctioned opposition party.
Assad also released hundreds of longtime supporters of judges to officials who were arrested earlier this year in a crackdown aimed at silencing critics within his loyalist camp.
Assad, who is from the small Alawite religious community, has all but crushed the insurgency in Syria, a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. He did so with the help of Russia, which sent fighter jets, and Iran, whose support includes fighters from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group.
Turkey still holds territory in the northwest, where millions live in squalid camps after fleeing Russian-backed bombing, and there is a small US military presence in the northeast, underlying the Kurdish rebels.
Before the war, Syria had a small but growing industrial base and produced modest amounts of oil from its now Kurdish-controlled northeast, where most of its wheat was grown. Other food needs have been met mainly from its fertile Mediterranean coast.
Now the economy has collapsed. Power cuts are longer than in some of the worst fights as the government runs out of foreign currency to import fuel. Inflation has skyrocketed.
“The situation today is no better than the previous days when we lived under siege and bombardment,” said Abdul Khalek Hasouna from Moudamiya, a town near Damascus. “It was better than now.”
But Assad has contained his main adversaries. Sunni rebels, the backbone of the insurgency, are largely confined to the north. There are few signs of further opposition in other areas.
Places like Ghouta, at the gates of Damascus, remain sober. Western states and rights groups say Ghouta has faced deadly gas attacks that have left hundreds dead after an uprising. Assad denies it.
To encourage disillusioned worshipers, Assad offered interest-free loans and one-time grants to state employees. State salaries have been increased. But Western sanctions still bite.
“The economy will not stand up if the economic sanctions are not lifted,” said Nabil Sukr, a Damascus-based economist.
During the war, Assad’s security services fed the militias to help him fight his battles. With the fighting diminishing, some disillusioned militia members claim that the groups have created powerful fiefdoms. Others complain that they haven’t been rewarded enough.
“My two brothers were martyred and what did we get? Nothing,” said YounÃ¨s, a veteran of a militia in Tartous in the Mediterranean, who gave only his first name.
Yet for some Syrians, like Habib on his low teaching salary, election or not, there is little choice.
âLife has become unbearable under Assad,â he said. “We used to think of him as a saint and now he pushes us from staunch supporters to silent opposition.”
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