The Syrian Government's successful effort to re-take the Qalamoun area from opposition forces was designed with two aims in mind: to reassert government control over an area abutting Lebanon that resupplied opposition forces close to Damascus, and to maintain military momentum in advance of elections, just announced for 3 June.
On the face of it, an election in Syria appears to be both grotesque and futile given the large swathes of the country that lie outside government control, and the savage fighting still going on. To anti-government forces (whose members the election law effectively excludes), it is a provocation that will almost certainly make any non-military solution to the Syrian problem even more difficult. The Geneva talks will most likely collapse, though in any case they have achieved little of substance to date.
But despite these challenges, it appears the election will proceed.
There is of course method in Assad's apparent madness. An election that returns him to office will serve as yet another point of difference between him and the fractured opposition, and feed into the nationalist, anti-Islamic-extremist narrative he has been building all along. The narrative goes something like this:
- The election is a victory for the Syrian people (at least those who remain in Syria in areas under government control). By contrast, the political opposition either elect themselves or are appointed by their Gulf supporters.
- The armed opposition is a combination of Western/Gulf lackeys and unreconstructed Islamist terrorists. The Syrian army's recent recapture of the ancient Christian town of Maaloula from Islamist fighters and Assad's subsequent Easter visit were designed to send a not so subtle message to religious minorities (and sections in the West) that the only person preventing an Islamist takeover of Syria is him.
- The Syrian people need a strong leader to counter external enemies, and Assad has stood firm these past three years in defending Syrian sovereignty against the aforementioned armed opposition and their allies.
Of course, not many people in Syria really buy this narrative (with the exception perhaps of point 2), but that's not the point. This election is really about messaging and placing more pressure on the opposition in order to further fracture it.
Even with every incentive to coalesce, the inability of the opposition to present a united front or an acceptable alternative leader after three years has brought it to the brink of irrelevance. The election, which looks set to reinforce the tenure of a man with whom they and their allies refuse to negotiate, presents them with a dilemma they may well be unable to solve. For Damascus, it's all about contrasting the Ba'thist regime's solidarity with the opposition's fractiousness.
Assad's Russian and Iranian allies have sunk significant strategic costs into the Syrian conflict and their support for an outcome in their favour remains strong. Given Moscow's view of itself as a resurgent power, continued support for Assad in the face of US and Western opposition fits neatly into Russia's own nationalist narrative. And Tehran knows that the Washington considers the nuclear negotiations, rather than Iranian support for Assad, as the key regional focus. A neat solution for the nuclear issue that President Obama could point to as a legacy is achievable. It's unlikely that there will be such a neat conclusion to the Syria quagmire.
Militarily, Assad has tightened his grip on Damascus, appears close to retaking the third-largest city Homs, and could expect to then concentrate his forces for a push on Aleppo in the run-up to the election, thereby claiming to have a mandate from Syria's three largest population centres. Although Assad has insufficient forces to re-establish control over the whole country, a long game suits his purposes. The Islamists, meanwhile, have suffered more setbacks: they have inflicted significant casualties on themselves through their infighting, Ayman al Zawahiri has had to issue 'guidelines' to al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria on how to operate, and on the southern front the Jordanians may be losing patience with the opposition.
The Syrian election in June will be somewhat farcical, given the ongoing civil war, the restrictive electoral law and the millions of refugees in neighbouring countries who won't vote. But this election is not about presenting a democratic process. It's about sending a simple message to the opposition and its supporters: Assad is here to stay.
Photo by Flickr user delayed gratification.