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Syria: Elections Gambit to Get Russia Off the Hook | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, November 14, 2015 (Leonhard Foeger/ Reuters)

In a U-turn that might enter diplomatic annals as among the most bizarre, the United Nations’ special envoy on Syria Staffan di Mistura is forecasting an end of the war and the holding of elections there next year.

In a BBC radio interview yesterday, di Mistura more than implied that the international community must now accept the prolongation of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and the holding of elections by what is left of his administration.

Di Mistura’s new position is in sharp contrast with the analysis he offered last year when he explicitly ruled out “any possibility of holding elections under the present regime.”

Spelling out his new analysis yesterday, di Mistura speculated that the Islamic State will lose its last strongholds in Syria by October, paving the way for “free and fair elections.”

“What we are seeing is, in my opinion, the beginning of the end of this war… what we need to make sure is that this becomes also the beginning of peace. And that is where the challenge starts at this very moment,” he said.

Analysts believe that di Mistura, frustrated by his failure to broker a deal between the rival blocs in this conflict, is trying to inject a bit of “positive mood” into what is a growingly grim picture. Just a few weeks ago, diplomatic circles were abuzz with rumors about di Mistura either being sacked or throwing in the towel.

“His new optimism may be due to some vague promises from Moscow,” says a UN official on condition of anonymity.

“With the Trump administration apparently letting Russia play the lead in this phase of the Syrian drama, di Mistura needs some backing from Russia to get anything done. Russia, in return, demands that the issue of {Bashar} al-Assad’s future be set aside for the time being.”

To cajole di Mistura in line, Moscow seems to have also promised a set of as yet unspecific concessions by the Assad clan in Damascus.

What di Mistura ignores is the fact that Assad and his backers who think they have won the war are in no mood to make any meaningful concessions to their opponents who may represent a majority of the Syrian people.

“Russia and Iran are certainly trying to split the anti-Assad opposition,” says Iranian analyst Nasser Zamani.

“The issue of early elections without a decision on Assad’s fate is likely to cause such a split.”

The so-called Cairo and Moscow opposition groups, believed to have a tacit understanding with at least part of the Assad regime, are likely to welcome the idea of elections in 2018. The main opposition coalition, known as the High Negotiations Committee, however, is likely to reject elections in circumstances in which the Assad regime controls at least 40 per cent of the population.

Di Mistura’s election gambit may, in fact, have little do with the core problems of the Syrian tragedy. It is clear that no serious elections could be held in such a short time and with no transition authority in place.

The dramatic changes in the Syrian demographic composition mean that no credible electoral register could be established without a proper census. By most estimates, at least half of Syria’s population has been transformed into refugees or displaced persons within the country.

Even if some kind of register is worked out, other key issues such as designating constituencies or adopting the system of proportional representation are complex enough to require more time to tackle.

Then there is the problem of who will organize, monitor and ultimately certify any election.

In areas still nominally under his control, Assad has not allowed the United Nations to build a credible presence that could be used as the basis for monitoring elections.

The situation in areas held by the opposition is even worse, as far as the UN’s ability to have an impact is concerned.

More importantly, perhaps, it is not clear what the election will be about and whether it will be fought by individual candidates or coalition of rival parties. As far and Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are concerned, the exercise may simply be used as window-dressing to produce another Third World style majority for the regime.

Elections would be meaningful if the Syrians are offered a real choice of alternatives. And that requires the production of programs that he electorate can compare and judge.

Right now the remnants of the Ba’ath Party, still nominally leading the government in Damascus, is in no position to offer any concrete program beyond obedience to President Assad.

The opposition coalition, however, does have something to offer in the shape of the “transition road-map” approved at a conference in London last year and envisaging the formation of an interim government within six months. The plan implicitly accepts Assad’s continued presence for six months until the transition government is put in place.

It also insists that “war criminals and those charged with crimes against humanity” would not get a role in the transition. However, it stopped short of demanding the dismantling of the current regime’s administrative and military and security structures.

In an indirect attempt at addressing Russian concerns that Assad’s departure might lead to a collapse of the Syrian state and army, as was the case in Iraq in 2003, “the road map” makes it clear that the opposition is looking not “for purges” but for “reforms based on consensus and accommodation”.

Under “the road map”, special committees will review the “present situation” of Syria’s military and security apparatus with a view to restructuring them and re-training their personnel to serve a people-based government rather than a power-based on clannish and narrow ideological considerations.

Although suggestions regarding the federal option are not specifically raised, the “road-map” makes it clear it seeks the preservation of Syria’s largely centralized state structures with a series of reforms aimed at promoting democratization.

The “road map” initially enjoyed di Mistura’s strong backing but is no longer mentioned by him. This maybe because the UN special envoy is trying to find a way for Russia out of the Syrian quagmire rather than paving the way for lasting peace in that war-torn country.

Di Mistura himself has hinted at this. “Even those who believe they won the war – that is the government – they will need to make a gesture, otherwise Daesh will come back in a month or two months’ time,” he said yesterday. “Nobody had an interest in a resurgence of IS in Syria”.

He went on to say that the leadership in Moscow, recalling the Soviet experience of war in Afghanistan, “certainly wants an exit strategy.”

Giving Moscow an exit strategy in Syria cannot come at the expense of the Syrian people who have fought the regime for almost seven years.

The issue of Assad’s future cannot be fudged. If elections are to be held Syrians must be offered a clear choice between a regime that has brought them to grief and an opposition that may offer a less bad alternative.