What Assad’s Fourth Term May Mean for Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Edited by Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Bashar al-Assad has secured a fourth 7-year term following presidential elections in Syria. The result was never in question, official state media reporting that Assad won over 95% of the vote. Now comes the hard part. With the country reeling from a decade of civil strife, anemic economic growth, a devalued currency, and an inability to control external borders, Assad must now turn to further consolidating domestic power and dealing with Russia and Iran, on which he has come increasingly to rely.

Syria’s precarious economic, political, and security situation is featured consistently across various reports, editorials, and op-eds. For example, the Arab Weekly characterized Assad’s victory as “controversial,” adding, “The vote took place amid the lowest levels of violence since the war erupted in 2011, but with the economy in free fall. More than 80 percent of the population live in poverty, and the Syrian pound has plunged in value against the dollar, causing skyrocketing inflation. Tightening US sanctions, Lebanon’s financial collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic hitting remittances from Syrians abroad, and the inability of allies Russia and Iran to provide enough relief, mean prospects for recovery look poor.”

Given the level of instability across the country, the Turkish Daily Sabah, consistently critical of the Syrian president, has rejected the election outcome, insisting that free and fair elections could not take place in Syria against the background of “an ongoing military conflict, the lack of a political solution, the failure of negotiations between the opposition and the regime, and the displacement of more than 10 million Syrians either as refugees or internally displaced persons. The Turkish Foreign Ministry stated last month that the international community could not accept the Syrian presidential elections as legitimate, underlining that the elections deprive almost 7 million Syrians in the diaspora of suffrage. Moreover, about 40% of the country is not under regime control.”

Meanwhile, Asharq Alawsat’s editorial draws attention to Syria’s dismal situation, concluding that the “predictable landslide” re-election of the Syrian president is unlikely to change things on the ground and could potentially worsen relations with the West: “Assad’s victory comes as the country is still devastated by the conflict. Fighting has subsided but the war is not over. An economic crisis is getting worse in a country where over 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the local currency is in a free fall…. The election is likely to offer little change to conditions in Syria. While Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, may be seeking a new seal of legitimacy for the president in office since 2000, his re-election is likely to deepen the rift with the West, driving him closer to Russian and Iranian backers as well as China.”

Assad’s re-election comes on the heels of what can be considered a slight regional realignment and perhaps even the rehabilitation of the Syrian president in the eyes of other regional leaders. Yet Assad hardly looks like a man in charge, a view shared by the Jordanian-based journalist and political commentator Osama Al Sharif, who in an op-ed for Gulf News points out, “A number of Arab countries are about to reopen their embassies in Damascus, and Syria may regain its seat at the Arab League. That could be linked to the geopolitical shifts that the region is witnessing, a slow US departure from the region and a growing Russian presence. But would that be enough to save Assad and Syria, whose fates are now firmly intertwined? One thing is sure: Assad may appear to be in charge, but Syria’s future path will be decided elsewhere.”

Reflecting on the timing of elections, Suleiman Al-Khalidi, cites in a recent Jerusalem Post article Syrian activists, according to whom the whole point of the voting was to signal to the West that Assad was in charge and supported by a popular mandate: “Western governments and Assad’s domestic opponents, many now abroad because they say it is the only way to avoid Syria’s pervasive secret police, or mukhabarat, view the vote as a choreographed affair to rubber stamp his rule…. Some Syrians say the vote aims to tell the United States, Europe and others that Assad is unbroken and Syria still functions, even amid pockets of fighting, mostly in the north. ‘These elections are aimed at the West, taking the pattern of Western-style elections in one way or the other to give an “I am like you” message,’ said Maan Abdul Salam, who heads the Syrian think-tank ETANA.”

Not everyone is willing to accept the version of reality offered by the government, however. For many, the conclusions drawn by this Albawaba article point to a difficult future for both regime supporters and the Syrian people in general: “Today, the Assad regime is on life support, requiring ongoing political, security, and economic assistance from a host of exogenous actors. Moscow, Tehran, Hezbollah, and a nexus of war profiteers and militias help the regime maintain a pulse amid economic corrosion and unprecedented loyalist resentment…. At every stage of the war, the Assad regime’s backers have managed to artificially prolong its lifespan. Their methods have been creative, and their moral red lines non-existent. Yet, given the regime’s internal contradictions, it is not clear that it can be saved from itself.”

Despite the various critical voices, it is perhaps telling that few, if any, are calling for a scenario that not long ago was considered the only solution to the Syrian crisis: the removal of the president. That change in tone is evident in The National’s editorial urging Assad to “rebuild trust with its neighbors, as well as his own people. That will require a great deal of work after the regionally destabilizing catastrophe of a war for which his governance was largely responsible. Standing on the threshold of another seven years in power, Al Assad has a choice. There will be no long-term stability or prosperity in a ‘Bashar only’ state. If he really does stand for Syria, he will have to break with precedent and work towards building a government and state for all citizens, particularly those still scattered across the world in traumatic limbo. It is a long shot but one that is desperately needed.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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