Several days before the May 26 kickoff of presidential voting in Syria, incumbent Bashar al-Assad and his government have been proclaiming the integrity of an election that handed him a fourth seven-year-term and a second electoral victory during a decade of civil war.
The Assad family has ruled Syria for 51 years. Bashar Assad came to power in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez Assad.
Rights groups, along with U.S. and European Union officials and the Syrian political opposition, say the election was a sham.
That hasn’t stopped Assad’s allies in Russia from trying to create the illusion of authenticity with one-sided news coverage and social media posts.
“Syrian President Bashar Assad wins re-election with 95.1% of votes,” blared the headline on a breaking news alert from the Russian state-owned news site RT, as results were announced on May 27.
The headline of an RT op-ed declared: “Today I saw Syrians dancing and celebrating life, and a return to peace – but, of course, the Western media won’t report that.”
Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency quoted Dmitry Sablin, a member of the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, who is coordinating a parliamentary group for relations with Syrian lawmakers, as saying:
“We can see that everyone has the opportunity to freely cast their ballots, and the election meets all international standards.”
However, judging by accounts from watchdog groups and Syrian refugees, and the process outlined in a key United Nations resolution defining a roadmap to peace for Syria, that claim is false.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted unanimously in 2015, called for a new Syrian constitution and free and fair elections, to be held according “to the highest international standards,” under U.N. supervision.
That’s not what’s happening, as U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pederson said in a May 26 briefing to the U.N. Security Council.
“We take note that today a presidential election is being held under the auspices of the current constitution. As indicated previously, this is not part of the political process called for in Security Council resolution 2254. The U.N. is not involved in this election and has no mandate to be involved,” Pederson said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Italy and Britain said in a May 25 joint statement that the Syrian vote is neither free nor fair because it is outside the framework of the U.N.’s resolution.
“For an election to be credible, all Syrians should be allowed to participate, including internally displaced Syrians, refugees, and members of the diaspora, in a safe and neutral environment,” the statement said. “We support the voices of all Syrians, including civil society organizations and the Syrian opposition, who have condemned the electoral process as illegitimate.”
A video from the Syria state news agency SANA, which was shared by Syrian activists on Twitter, showed a Russian delegation observing a polling station in the Qaddam neighborhood of Damascus. In the video, voters crammed into a room to cast their ballots without regard to privacy.
SANA said polls opened early on Wednesday, May 26. The 55-year-old Assad and his wife Asma cast their ballots in the formerly rebel-controlled enclave of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical attack by pro-Assad forces in 2018, which killed more than 40 people.
After voting, Assad repeated to news media the claim that the election is free and fair.
There were two other candidates who ran for the post of Syrian president – Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmad Marie. They were not considered genuine competitors.
According to reports from areas under Syrian government control, many people participated in the vote out of fear, and some allegedly were coerced.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based Syrian war monitoring NGO, said the Assad regime threatened to punish and dismiss government employees and workers who failed to vote.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, citing interviews with people in government-controlled areas, issued a statement condemning the government for forcing Syrian citizens onto the streets for pro-Assad parades. The network said authorities showed callous disregard for the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Syria TV, an opposition station in Turkey, reported that anyone refusing to participate in the election in Douma faced arrest.
In the Syrian government-controlled area of Deraa, protesters announced a general strike against what they called an “illegitimate” election. Deraa is where the first anti-government protests began in 2011 at the start of the civil war.
Syrian refugees dismissed the election as a rubber-stamp vote.
Abu Alaa, a 43-year-old farmer and father of 10 children from the Syrian city of Homs who is now living in a tent in northern Lebanon, told Reuters that Assad "destroyed a whole country and fragmented it and made millions flee and destroyed Syria. He has no longer a place in our hearts – why should we vote for him? He is a killer."
The National, a private English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, showed a drone-shot video of a large crowd protesting the election in Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave in northwest Syria. The Syrian coalition, the main opposition body, tweeted videos of anti-election protests in Idlib, calling the election illegitimate.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in northeastern Syria announced on Monday, May 24, that it will not be part of an election that does meet the U.N. protocols. The SDC conditioned its participation on freeing political prisoners and returning displaced Syrians.
The Syrian civil war is now in its tenth year. with approximately 11 million people in need of humanitarian aid inside and outside of the country, according to the U.N.’s refugee office.
The U.N. stopped counting the death toll in 2016, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that more than 593,000 have been killed. The Assad regime is accused of using chemical weapons in Syria and committing war crimes.