Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won a fourth term with 95% of the vote in a poll that was rejected abroad as a “farce”.
With most of the conflict on hold but his country’s economy in ruins, what likely will Assad’s priorities be when he begins his first post-war term?
– What’s in a number? –
This is the percentage of the official vote results according to whether Assad won Wednesday’s presidential election, every parameter of which was controlled by him and his Baath party.
The number of votes – 13.5 million – he received far exceeded what some observers had said was a realistic total turnout, and thousands had gathered in public squares on Thursday, hours before. announcement of results.
“95.1% of Syrians have spoken: Bashar al-Assad is president of the republic”, headlined Friday the front page of the pro-government daily Al-Watan.
With less than five percent of the vote remaining for his two hand-picked “rivals”, the election result announced by the Assad regime seems to end any suggestion that he could have used the election as an opening for a more inclusive policy.
“The international diplomatic effort to reform Syria is dead, and this election with its 95.1% authoritarian vote for Assad is the last nail in its coffin,” said Nicholas Heras, analyst at the Newlines Institute in Washington.
The United Nations had placed their hopes in this election as a turning point in Syria’s reform efforts, but the long-awaited constitutional review that was supposed to precede it never happened.
Much of the international community rejected the ballot before it even started, with the notable exception of Russia, which hailed Assad’s “decisive” victory.
For Heras, Moscow and Damascus’s other key ally, Tehran, have sent “a great signal to the United States and its partners that there is no Syrian future without Assad”.
– What priorities for Assad? –
Immediately after the results were announced Thursday evening, Assad declared that the “work phase” for the reconstruction of Syria would begin.
His regime controls only about two-thirds of the national territory and some areas are in ruins, mainly as a result of bombing by its own forces.
Assad’s campaign has portrayed him as “the man who won a war, has big ideas for rebuilding Syria and is the only person capable of handling” the post-conflict chaos, Heras said.
But with the West unwilling to release reconstruction aid in the absence of political reform, Damascus is turning to its former Gulf enemies for cash.
Some monarchies have already reopened their diplomatic representations in Damascus and Assad hopes to further improve their relations to launch his new seven-year term.
Assad’s senior adviser, Buthaina Shaaban, told a local radio station that “efforts are underway to improve ties between Damascus and Riyadh”.
Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad also spoke of a thaw in relations with the region.
Syrian analyst Shadi Ahmad sees Assad’s first months after the elections marked by “the restoration of relations between the two parties”.
The rapprochement would come a decade after the start of a war in which Assad claimed he was facing armed rebels funded by the Gulf powers.
– What alternatives? –
Assad’s “me or chaos” mantra from the early stages of the conflict has simplified further to “me or nothing” now that the fighting is largely over.
Of the other two candidates in the May 26 vote, both were widely regarded as paper candidates of the symbolic opposition.
Assad’s most vocal opposition is in exile, harbored by countries unwilling or unable to take decisive action for change in Syria.
Western powers like the United States and France which once insisted on Assad’s departure have called the ballot “neither free nor fair” and “a farce”.
“Apart from this description, they carry very little weight,” said Karim Emile Bitar, Middle East analyst and professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
In the long run, however, Bitar asserts that Assad himself is likely to feel “hostage to his regional patrons, especially Iran and Russia.”
“Sooner or later the game will change and the opposition will see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I hope that a new chapter in the history of Syria can begin,” he said.
“But to be honest at this point, I see very little reason to be optimistic,” Bitar said.
© 2021 AFP