As Gulf states court the regime, will Syria's sham election cement Assad's survival?

People walk next to election campaign billboards in Damascus depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [Getty]
6 min read
25 May, 2021
Analysis: Syria's fraudulent election may represent an opportunity for some states to turn tacit acceptance of Assad's survival into support.

At present, early voting is taking place in Syria as the country stages its 2021 presidential election.

The election is a sham, and everyone knows that Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled the country since the death of his father Hafez in 2000, will be declared the victor.

There are no international observers to inspect the vote, except monitors from Belarus – widely described as "Europe's last dictatorship". 

Its totals will not be real. But the fraudulence of the election does not stop it from being useful.

For the Assad regime, this election is the latest stunt in a campaign of self-legitimation, a bid to have the world forget Syria's decade-long civil war and settle for Assad continuing in power.

"Saudi Arabia's reported overtures towards Assad closely resemble the way the UAE has built up a de facto recognition of the Syrian dictator in the last five years"

For the leaders of some other countries, who have in the past called for Assad's resignation or overthrow, the election may represent an opportunity to turn tacit acceptance of Assad's survival into public support.

Behind the scenes, the regime can rely upon what appears to be growing cooperation from some regional powers.

This is something that has been crystalised by reports of new contact between the Assad regime and officials from Saudi Arabia.

Media reports earlier this month said that Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief had travelled to Syria to meet his counterpart in Damascus to discuss restoring diplomatic relations. If confirmed, it would be the first visit of its kind since the war began.

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Saudi Arabia ceased diplomatic ties with Syria and closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 after the regime brutally suppressed anti-government protests.

The war has left around 500,000 dead, mostly from regime attacks, with more than five million Syrians forced to flee to neighbouring countries and an additional six million Syrian civilians internally displaced.

“It’s been planned for a while, but nothing has moved,” a Saudi official, who asked not to be identified, told The Guardian. “Events have shifted regionally and that provided the opening”. 

The kingdom's apparent overtures towards Assad closely resemble the way the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has built up a de facto recognition of the Syrian dictator in the last five years.

Abu Dhabi has made attempts to rehabilitate the regime, not only by trying to bring Assad into the mainstream of diplomacy but also by reopening its Damascus embassy in 2018. Media reports earlier this month suggested that Saudi Arabia could emulate this move.

In March, the UAE, and other countries such as Egypt, called for the return of Syria to the Arab League, from which it has been excluded for a decade.

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As has happened with the Saudi initiative, for Abu Dhabi things largely began with intelligence sharing and security. Damascus has also claimed UAE cooperation - possibly in intelligence terms - in what it has called its “war on terrorism” since 2019.

The UAE has also hosted investment forums to spur joint Emirati and Syrian investment in regime territory. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has joined in the regime's rhetorical push against lingering sanctions against the Syrian regime initiated by its repression and deepened in response to individual war crimes it has committed. Like the regime, the UAE claims these sanctions have held back Syria's economic recovery.

The UAE has also sent Syria aid to deal with the country's Covid-19 crisis - although the practical benefit of this to Syrian citizens rather than the state is minimal.

The reasons for the UAE’s, and Saudi Arabia’s, overtures are various. Assad's backers, notably Iran, are nominally enemies of Abu Dhabi, and of the Saudi state.

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The Gulf states will "need to go slow for the moment", Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The New Arab. "Iran is still a massive player in Syria. And to fully normalise with Assad after demonising him and Iran for so long [is] not a good look."

"This ties into larger questions about Gulf state positioning vis-a-vis Iran, the US re-engagement over the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], and the need for the Saudis to somehow deescalate in Yemen. Moving too fast on any of these fronts will give off the impression that Iran has come out on top."

The UAE and Saudi Arabia might - not least because of both states' opposition to Iran's presence in Syria - be beholden to the idea that Assad and Iran can all be pried apart, that Assad could become his own force once again and not an outpost of Iran's regional apparatus, the growth of which has put the Saudis, especially, on the back foot.

Another motivation might hold that Iran and Russia, which currently dominate Syria largely in alignment with each other, could be separable by stoking competition between the two.

Rehabilitating Assad may seem a shortcut to creating another legitimate lever within Syria to affect these dynamics.

"The war has left around 500,000 dead, mostly from regime attacks, with more than five million Syrians forced to flee to neighbouring countries"

Arguments such as these, however, have been floated for years, and have each time seemed unlikely. With Iran and Assad in lockstep, separating the two seems antithetical to the interests of each. Russia and Iran may have different objectives at the micro-level, but in the survival of Assad and the crushing of opposition to him, each is in firm agreement.

But whether this is realistic is beside the point: what matters is whether the Gulf states believe it can be done.

But "the Gulf states aren’t creators when it comes to Syria. They follow what the big boys do, and have to react", Stephens said.

Turkey provides another complication. The UAE may, in Syria as in Libya, be content to work with unsavoury partners like Assad and Khalifa Haftar in a bid to counteract Turkish actions.

By its increasingly overt involvement in northern Syria, and its fighting of proxy wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey has allowed itself to be seen by many Arab monarchies and dictatorships as a revisionist power in need of taming.

Those status-quo states think that Syria's instability has allowed Turkish entrenchment. By stabilising the Assad regime Syria, they believe, the Turkish-dominated rebel enclave in Syria's north may be presented as an appendage and a liability - all the better reason to push for Turkish withdrawal back across its border, and the surrender of its stake in Syria's north. 

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Either way, this normalisation tack appears to be the route the Saudis are tempted to follow. If the meeting between intelligence officials in May is evidence of this, the kingdom is already in contact with a regime it has tried at various times in the past decade to undermine and topple.

But “the Saudis have been withdrawn from anything related to Syria for years now”, said Suhail al-Ghazi, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The [Saudis'] military and financial support has been cut: decreased after 2016 and completely shut down in 2018.”

"The normalisation wouldn't have, in my opinion, a big effect on refugees," al-Ghazi said. "It may be the opposite, maybe KSA would throw some money for people in need in regime-held areas - if it reached a deal with the regime."

All these questions remain speculative until normalisation occurs, but it is an intriguing footnote in the Syrian war: that Arab states, who expelled Syria from their number and supported rebel groups both financially and rhetorically, are now prepared to welcome a shattered and collapsed state back into their midst, even when the regime which leads it has done all they accused it of and worse.

There could be no better symbol of the moral compromise this represents than these states lining up to welcome the sham results of a rigged election.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell