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InReview: Middle East Elections – Egypt and Syria

From the June 2014 LDESP Middle East News Update.

In Review: Middle East Elections – Egypt and Syria

In early June, Egypt and Syria carried out their respective general elections; Syria’s incumbent Bashar al-Assad won 88.7% and Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won 96% of the votes. Near the beginning of the Arab Spring, the two countries seemed to have divergent paths toward democracy. Many were hopeful that Egypt would set the example for other Arab countries to follow while it was becoming clear that Syria’s conflict was developing into a civil war that could result in much bloodshed. Now, with these alleged landslide victories and an uncertain future in both countries, these two establishment leaders and the people they govern seem to be similarly stalled in transitional processes. The following is a collection of news reports on the recent elections as well as general news from Egypt and Syria.

In January 2011, the swift ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak seemed to foreshadow an inevitable transition toward democracy. But a mere three years later, politics in Egypt have undergone such drastic changes that it seems impossible to know what Sisi’s recent victory will bring. Following Egypt’s first democratic elections resulting in the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and President Mohamed Morsi’s victory, the Brotherhood seemed to have consolidated enough power to govern the country indefinitely. Since then, the systematic crackdown of the Brotherhood and their supporters has led many to worry that the next administration could be even harsher than that of President Morsi. The BBC reports, “Abdul Fattah al-Sisi Declared Egypt’s New President”:

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has urged Egyptians to work to restore stability after being declared the winner of the late May presidential election. The former army chief said he wanted “freedom” and “social justice”, echoing the slogan of the 2011 revolution. Mr Sisi spoke after election officials announced that he had received 96.9% of the vote and his sole challenger, left-winger Hamdeen Sabahi, only 3.1%. The retired field marshal overthrew President Mohammed Morsi last July. He has since been locked in a battle with Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which urged a boycott of what it called “the election of blood”. Liberal and secular activists, including the 6 April youth movement which was prominent in the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, also shunned the poll in protest at the curtailing of civil rights. Some journalists and government officials burst into applause and started dancing after the final results of the election were announced at a news conference in Cairo on 3 June. Thousands of Sisi supporters also celebrated in the capital’s famous Tahrir Square, cheering, singing songs and setting off fireworks.

(…)

Challenges

The official turnout was 47.45%, far lower than Mr Sisi had hoped for as an endorsement and only achieved after an additional third day of voting. Before the election, he declared that he wanted 40 million, or 74%, to cast their ballots to show that there was “consensus on a national level”. He now faces a wide array of challenges, including fixing the economy, easing poverty and preventing further political crises. Mr Sisi has also promised to restore security in a country where attacks by Islamist militants have left hundreds of security personnel dead over the past 11 months.

The militants have stepped up attacks in response to the state’s crackdown on Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, in which more than 1,400 people have been killed and 16,000 detained. Mr Morsi and other senior leaders of the Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist organisation, are currently standing trial on a raft of charges. They strongly deny any wrongdoing. Critics fear that Mr Sisi will continue to show little tolerance for dissent. On 2 June, the interior ministry announced plans to increase surveillance of the internet for a variety of “dangers”, ranging from extremism to “humiliating mockery” of officials. (BBC)

Observers of U.S. politics often point out that a sign of the strength in the country’s democracy can be seen in its robust comedic commentary. From Saturday Night Live to the nightly satirical news shows on Comedy Central, there is no shortage of humor when it comes to internal criticism of U.S. politics. Egypt seemed to have found its equivalent in Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian satirist who broke ground for political humor, and even mockery, in the new Egypt. Sadly for the state of their democracy, Youssef’s show was canceled on the day of President Sisi’s victory. “Egyptian Satirist Bassem Youssef Ends His TV Show”:

Youssef told a news conference that Saudi-based MBC-Misr TV, which had been carrying his show, had come under pressure to halt it, though he would not say from whom.

 Since the military’s ouster last summer of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, Egypt has seen a surge in nationalism that tolerates little criticism of the army or its former chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who will now be president after winning the late May election in a landslide. Youssef has come under heavy denunciations from backers of the military for his often biting satires of the fervor.

‘‘I’m not a revolutionary and I’m not a warrior. I was expressing my views once a week. The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program,’’ Youssef told reporters. ‘‘I’m tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family.’’

‘‘Stopping the program sends a much stronger message than if it continued,’’ he said.

Youssef’s weekly show, ‘‘ElBernameg’’ — Arabic for ‘‘The Program’’ — was launched after the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak and had its heyday during the one-year presidency of Morsi. Youssef stung Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, as well as liberal politicians and media personalities, with jokes, skits and musical numbers. At one point, he was put under criminal investigation during Morsi’s presidency after complaints he insulted the presidency.

But the show has faced more troubles since Morsi’s ouster, when he turned his attention more on the military.

The privately owned Egyptian station CBC that was airing the show at the time refused to broadcast one episode, prompting Youssef to jump to MBC-Misr. Transmission of several of his episodes with that station was jammed, but it was never clear who was behind the interference.

The show went on a hiatus soon before campaigning began for the late May presidential election, in which el-Sissi was seen from the start as the certain winner. Youssef said that was a decision by taken the station in hopes of protecting the program and ensuring its continuation.

(…)

He said he had offers by non-Arab TV stations to air the show, but declined them because he was concerned he would be branded a ‘‘traitor’’ by the jingoistic pro-military media in Egypt. ‘‘Egypt is the program’s home. It cannot be broadcast from abroad,’’ he said.

Asked what message he would have for the party or person behind MBC-Misr’s decision to stop airing the program, Youssef said: ‘‘Why are you scared?’’ His staff applauded. (Boston Globe, Associated Press)

The events that led to Sisi’s presidential victory could and would generally be considered a coup, that is the military stepped in to depose a democratically-elected president, consolidate power, and install the top general as the top politician. But the role of the military in Egypt makes the issue much more complicated. In an excellent Washington Post article, professor emeritus of political science at The University of Washington Ellis Goldberg contextualizes “Egypt’s Ruling Military“:

The election that was to provide confirmation of former Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency in the aftermath of his removal of former president Mohamed Morsi did not go as well as expected. Sisi won more than 95 percent of the votes against an essentially token opposition. Turnout was considerably less than Sisi had called for, although estimates range from 25 to 40 percent of the electorate. Sisi and his fellow generals appealed to Egyptians by claiming that they are engaged in a battle against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the threat of terrorism, as well as to jump-start a failing economy that threatens the country’s stability. In reality, the most important threat to military rule is the military itself, and it has taken important but little-noticed steps to eliminate that threat.

There are two basic realities to consider to understand the army’s dilemma. First, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that effectively rules Egypt today is very different from the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that took power in Egypt in 1952. Second, one of the most basic lessons of Authoritarianism 101 is that there are two dangers to prolonged military rule: Splits in the officer corps and the personal ascendancy of one general over the others.

The Free Officers were a small minority of colonels and their RCC was a fortuitous collection of officers of diverse rank primarily united by a common political antipathy toward the old regime and some personal loyalty to Gamal Abdel Nasser. SCAF, by contrast, is made up of the topmost hierarchy of the officer corps and it is the unity of that corps – rather than any ideological vision or personal ambitions – that it is most committed to protect.

Decades of scholarship on authoritarian regimes show that military dictatorships end when dissent among officers, between “hardliners” and “softliners,” overwhelms hierarchical discipline. These differences emerge from conflicts about a return to civilian rule and incapacity or corruption within the military itself. Military dictatorships also end when one officer transforms military dictatorship into personal rule.

The Egyptian armed forces have had three bitter conflicts with Egyptian presidents, and in each the armed forces were subjected to humiliating political losses. In two of those cases, the country also suffered crushing military defeat. In the 1960s, conflict between Nasser and Field Marshal Abdul Hakim Amir brought Egypt to the greatest military disaster of its history and the occupation of the entire Sinai Peninsula. Nasser and Amir had been friends and fellow officers before the 1952 coup, but by 1967 they were engaged in a debilitating power struggle that had already weakened the army as a professional fighting force. The uncertain circumstances of Amir’s reported suicide did not bring an end to episodic demonstrations against the regime between 1968 and 1971. Now forgotten, these were the most important instances of mass political opposition to the regime until 2011.

For Egyptian public consumption, the 1973 war is described as a significant victory. Elsewhere, 1973 is widely understood to have begun with a successful surprise attack that was never followed up by a successful military campaign and in which the Egyptian Third Army was nearly destroyed after Israeli troops encircled it in the desert. Memoirs and interviews show that many members of the general staff not only subscribed to the second view but bitterly resented then-President Anwar Sadat’s decisions to subordinate the pursuit of military victory to political maneuvering. That Sadat was one of the Free Officers only increased their bile.

Former president Hosni Mubarak, a former air force general, assumed office after Sadat’s assassination. Like Sadat, Mubarak had little experience with ground combat. His defense minister and commander in chief of the armed forces, Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala, was widely believed to be a likely challenger for power in the 1980s. Abu Ghazala had wide support among the ground forces and many people viewed him as a capable and charismatic figure who could replace the colorless and weak Mubarak. Instead, Mubarak summarily ousted Abu Ghazala, who retired under a cloud and died in relative obscurity. Mubarak then proceeded with policies Sadat had initiated after 1973 to marginalize the army within the Egyptian state, enhance the role of the Interior Ministry and the police, and create a dependent but reliable business elite. This was the army’s third political defeat, although it was less consequential at the time for the country as a whole.

Contemporary Egyptian history, in short, suggests that the armed forces have at least as much, and possibly more, to fear from alternate authoritarian rulers as from democratic ones. It is in this light that not only the language of the 2013 constitution should be read but, more importantly, the 2014 constitution and some of the associated legislative and administrative changes.

The 2014 Egyptian constitution gives SCAF the right to choose the defense minister for the next two presidential terms – a total of eight years. This was widely seen as a kind of icing on the cake in regard to the 2013 constitution, which already stipulated that the minister of defense would not be civilian but had to be chosen from among the ranks of military officers. Why was it so necessary to ensure this additional grant of power for a government that had already come to power through a coup? The new constitutional provisions were not designed to safeguard the military from a democratically elected president but from a charismatically empowered officer who sought personal power over the state, including the military. In other words, the additional language became more pressing, rather than merely decorative, once it became clear that the next president would not necessarily be a democratic transient but potentially a lengthy tenant.

Membership in SCAF, the body that must accede to the appointment of a minister of defense, has also been enlarged and regularized by another statute issued by Mansour. SCAF is to meet every three months and a quorum has been established. In reality, the role of SCAF has now been made subject to law and its increased size is likely to make it somewhat unwieldy. Nevertheless, legally and constitutionally it will be far more difficult for a president to limit the role of the army in high politics, and it will also be more difficult to use differences within the army to marginalize the generals. Whatever disagreements they have can be (although they may in reality not be) thrashed out in meetings.

The armed forces have much to fear from a president who seeks personal power. The most powerful presidents have been those with one of two sources of power apart from the armed forces: The popularity that comes with charismatic presence or populist policies on the one hand, or the political support drawn from particular social and economic groups. Nasser had popularity and was able to dominate the armed forces for at least a decade; Sadat was able to develop some institutional sources of support apart from the armed forces. Mubarak accomplished what neither Sadat nor Nasser could: He furthered the creation of a new business elite and a weak but real political organization (the National Democratic Party) to express a broad array of interests that allowed him independence from the armed forces.

The 2013 coup may have exorcised the danger of a political party such as the Muslim Brotherhood subordinating the armed forces to its control, but it left other problems in its wake. Sisi himself, even if he came from the ranks of the military, was another kind of threat. Beside the Scylla of institutional independence (Mubarak and even the Muslim Brotherhood), Sisi threatened the Charybdis of charismatic independence. All that singing, dancing, chocolates and underwear: The Sisi mania.

That the turnout was low is another cause for relief. Sisi may worry and the broadcasters, flacks and intellectual hangers-on moan that Egyptians are now refusing to give Sisi their voices. But within much of the general staff, there may now be quiet jubilation. Sisi, whatever he had hoped six months ago, will not be able to free himself from SCAF or his fellow generals. They did not campaign for him, and unlike him, they can look forward to another election in four years in which, if necessary, a more plausible military candidate can challenge him. (Washington Post)

While there are clear supporters of the military establishment, especially following what was seen as their benevolent intervention in the events that led to President Morsi’s ouster and essentially the ruin of the Muslim Brotherhood, the low turn-out for the elections and the Brotherhood’s statement that the elections were “null and void,” indicate that the military has alienated former allies and affiliates within the country who had at some point following the 2011 revolution appreciated the military’s efforts. At one point, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military were seen as partners in a post-Mubarak Egypt. At another point, liberals saw the military as saving the country from the Brotherhood’s increased power-grabbing.

This confusion is reflected in other countries’ response to and interaction with Egypt and it’s ruling military, not least of all vis-à-vis the U.S.: “Analysts: Obama in Bind Over Sissi Election”:

The sweeping victory of former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in the presidential election is part of a continuing diplomatic dilemma for the Obama administration and its Egypt policies, analysts say.

Sissi received more than 90 percent of the vote amid allegations of foul play and little independent monitoring of the low voter turnout in late May. A crackdown on opposition forces notwithstanding, little dissent was voiced throughout Egypt.

Sissi’s election comes after the military ouster last year of Egypt’s first democratically-elected civilian president Mohamed Morsi, who is in detention.

In his foreign policy address at West Point this week, U.S President Barack Obama walked a fine diplomatic line, analysts say.

“In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests – from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism,” he said.

Despite an outcry from international human rights groups against the Egyptian military leadership, Presidents Obama said that the U.S. has not cut off cooperation with the new Egyptian government.

He said that his administration can and will persistently press for the reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.

Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East said the U.S. is caught between promoting American ideals and maintaining its national interests.

“The U.S. message is confused because it is pursuing a lot of different priorities in Egypt; it has been trying to say that the defense and security relationship is very important, but on the other hand the U.S. is very concerned about violence and political repression.” Hawthorne said.

If Washington moved forward with a large portion of U.S. military aid that was previously suspended, Hawthorne said the U.S. would give the impression that political violence and ongoing repression in Egypt were no longer as important to the U.S.

But Paul Salem, a policy analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that President Obama was clear about U.S. strategic priorities in the Middle East.

“One: combatting terrorism, two: Israel as a super ally, three: free flow of oil from the (Persian) Gulf and last: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said.

Analysts say Sissi wants to ensure that the $1.5 billion in annual aid from the U.S. continues to arrive. Most of that aid goes to supporting the military.

His campaign remarks reflected a conciliatory tone to the U.S., stressing the importance of continued strategic relations between Washington and Cairo.

But analyst Hawthorne said he expects a lot of tensions between Egypt and the U.S. under Sissi’s leadership.

“Sissi indicated that he wants the relationship to be on his terms, which basically means that the U.S. should accept his narrative of Egypt’s political trajectory and his approach to governance,” she said. “I do not think the U.S. is ready to do that.”

Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that U.S.- Egyptian relations are at a moment of reflection.

“Both sides know closer relations are important, but the problem is that neither wants to engage with the other from a position of weakness,” she said.

But former Egyptian presidential candidate and former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa called for a new paradigm for U.S.–Egyptian relations.

“We should embark on an immediate consideration of what kind of relationship both sides wish to have as the U.S. can no longer tell the Egyptian president what she wants and expects he would simply oblige,” he said.

Moussa, who joined Sissi’s presidential campaign called on the U.S. to stop linking aid to Egypt with political developments in Cairo to avoid any further souring in bilateral relations.

Conspiracy theories prevalent in Egypt’s media have created another problem for the future  of U.S.–Egyptian relations.  Egypt’s media has accused the U.S. conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai for example. (Voice of America)

 

Assad Declared Landslide Victor in Wartime Syrian Election

President Bashar al-Assad has secured a landslide victory in a wartime election that was condemned as a sham by his opponents but demonstrated his tenacious hold on power after three years of brutal civil war. Parliamentary speaker Mohammad al-Laham said Assad secured 88.7 percent of votes cast in the election, which was held mainly in the central and western parts of the country, where his forces hold sway. “I declare the victory of Dr Bashar Hafez al-Assad as president of the Syrian Arab Republic with an absolute majority of the votes cast in the election,” Laham said in a televised address from his office in the Syrian parliament. Even before he spoke, celebratory gunfire and fireworks erupted in Damascus in anticipation of the news. Three people were killed in the capital and 10 were wounded by the gunfire, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. Nearly an hour after the announcement, heavy shooting could still be heard, despite an appeal by the victorious Assad that “joy and enthusiasm” could not justify the danger caused by the celebratory fire. State television showed crowds cheering and dancing in Damascus, Qamishli in the Kurdish northeast of the country, the Druze city of Suweida in the south and the contested city of Aleppo in the north. Syria’s constitutional court earlier said that turnout in the early June election and a previous round of voting for Syrian expatriates and refugees stood at 73 percent. Assad’s foes have ridiculed the election, saying the two relatively unknown and state-approved challengers offered no real alternative to Assad. Former minister Hassan al-Nouri got 4.3 percent of the vote while parliamentarian Maher Hajjar secured 3.2 percent, fewer than the number of spoilt ballots. They also said that no credible poll could be held in the midst of a conflict that has killed 160,000 people, driven millions from their homes and put swaths of northern and eastern Syria beyond Assad’s control. “These elections are illegitimate and undermine the political efforts to find a solution to this horrific conflict,” the European Union said in a statement. (Reuters)

Syrian Election Vote Counting Begins

Election officials have started counting votes in a Syrian presidential election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory for President Bashar al-Assad but which his opponents have called a charade. State-run media reported that voting closed at midnight on 3 June and that officials began the process of checking the number of votes against lists of registered voters to ensure the numbers matched. The poll was the first election in Syria for nearly 50 years, though Assad and his father Hafez have previously renewed their mandates in referendums. Rebel fighters, the political opposition in exile, Western powers and Gulf Arabs say no credible vote can be held in a country where swathes of territory are outside state control and millions have been displaced by conflict. State television said voting had been extended for five hours past the original deadline “because of the massive influx of voters”.

Voting only took place in government-controlled territories, meaning those displaced by fighting or living in rebel-held areas were unable to take part. Observers from countries allied to the regime – North Korea, Iran and Russia – supervised the election, while a security plan was reportedly put in place in Syrian cities to prevent possible attacks against voters and polling stations. (Al Jazeera)

Syrians Caught between Bombs and Ballot Box in Shattered Aleppo

Half of Syria had elections on 2 June; the other half barrel bombs. Across one side of the country’s divide, Syrians chose or were compelled to go to polling stations to vote for Bashar al-Assad. But in rebel-held Aleppo, Mohammed Assem and Mohammed Abdul Jawwad went to the corner shop, and one of Mr Assad’s missiles killed them. The residue of Aleppo’s three million people, pockets of survivors with nowhere to go and the elderly with no one to look after them, were expecting a quiet day, a respite in the aerial bombardment with which the regime is trying to drive them from their suburbs. But the jets continued to fly. At times, they unleashed the mild pop of a light missile on the front lines to the north – and every now and then came the heavier thump of a strike on a civilian area, as the houses crumpled. At Bab al-Hadid, the north-eastern gate to the Old City, a helicopter came first, with some sort of barrel bomb, dropped next to the honey-coloured Jamaa al-Haddadeen, the Mosque of the Blacksmiths, its ornately carved doors sent flying across the courtyard, its ancient stone pulpit left skewed at a crazy angle. Then a jet followed up with a missile fired into the flats next to it. When The Telegraph arrived, the building was still smoking, though the bodies of the two men unfortunate enough to have called into the shop beneath had been removed. These are the chances of war. The two men were identified, but no one could say much about who they were, or where their families were. Children, wives, parents have been scattered over northern Syria, finding safety in refugee camps or begging in Turkish or Lebanese cities or staying with relatives. Some men continue to work at their jobs in Aleppo, spending their weekends trawling the borderlands to check on wives and offspring and in-laws. A couple of miles away, in the neighbourhood of Shaar, Omar Hawatimi was both a lucky and unlucky victim. When the regime marked the penultimate day of the election campaign by dropping an enormous barrel bomb, the explosives apparently stuffed into a zinc garbage container, Mr Hawatimi was shutting up the grocery store where he worked with a colleague. A final customer had arrived, and his colleague went back in with him. That is the last thing Mr Hawatimi remembers before he woke up in hospital, apart from a faint memory of someone shouting “pull him out, pull him out”. The customer was killed instantly. The colleague, standing next to him, emerged unscathed. Mr Hawatimi’s stomach is full of shrapnel, and the doctors have removed a kidney.

More than 2,000 other civilians, including 600 children, have died since the regime began an intensive campaign of bombing of Aleppo’s civilian areas in November. The assumption is that it is an attempt to drive residents out before a final ground assault is made. The regime is trying and slowly succeeding in surrounding the city. An emptier city will be easier – and less embarrassing in the face of the world – to bombard into submission, as happened with Homs.

(…) Mr Assad is certain to win the election by a hefty majority – though perhaps by less than the 99 per cent he won in a 2007 referendum. But this was not a vote where people could choose their future. If there were a box for peace, no doubt many would have ticked it. If there were a box for an end to mayhem, torture, jihadism, and bombing, the people would have chosen that too. But the only choice has been made for you: whether you live on the regime side, and turn out for Mr Assad, or on the rebel side, and stand voicelessly as the bedraggled, grandiloquent warriors of a soiled rebellion roar past in pickup trucks. But who votes for whom is not the point. The point is that they are happening at all. (Telegraph)

Syrian Presidential Vote: What Changes Will it Bring?

What does Assad gain from holding this vote?

The 3 June election is intended to give a fresh boost of legitimacy to President Bashar al-Assad. It signals to Syrians and the rest of the world that he is not a dictator fighting for his life and that of his regime against a popular opposition, but the elected leader of a country battling foreign-backed “terrorists.” The smart money says that Assad will win by a landslide, but with a lower percentage than his previous wins (97.62 percent in 2007; 97 percent in 2000) in order to add a veneer of credibility. Most of the international community considers the election a farce and will not recognize it. The vote is another nail in the coffin of a negotiated end to Syria‘s civil war. Two rounds of talks earlier this year completely failed. Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations envoy for Syria, resigned in exasperation last month, and there is no serious effort to revive negotiations at this stage. Assad feels he is winning the war against the armed opposition. Bolstered by another seven-year term, he will see no need to engage in talks with the opposition.

Who are the other candidates?

In 2012, Syrian law changed so that presidential elections would no longer be a referendum on a single candidate.

Assad’s two opponents are Hassan Nouri, a wealthy businessman from Damascus and former cabinet minister, and Maher Hajjar, a lawmaker and ex-Communist Party activist from Aleppo in northern Syria. There were another 21 candidates, but they were disqualified from running. Neither opponent stands a chance of beating Assad but the fact that they are standing is supposed to convey a sense of integrity and competition to the electoral race.

The campaign carries none of the mud-slinging one might find in US elections, making for a polite but banal campaign. Mr. Nouri was quoted by Iran’s Press TV on 31 May as saying that cooperation between Syria, Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah party “will foil the colonialistic plans of countries outside the [Middle East] region” – a comment that could have come from Assad himself. Nouri and Mr. Hajjar’s electoral platforms mostly address economic and social development and endemic corruption. Little has been said about how they would end the war and engage with the opposition.

How much of the country will be able to vote?

There will only be voting in those areas under government control: most of Damascus; Homs, Syria’s third largest city; and the coastal towns and villages. It is unclear whether the divided city of Aleppo in the north will be able to vote. Rebel-held areas are boycotting the elections. Expatriate Syrians already have voted – in huge numbers in Lebanon, which hosts more than a million refugees.

What does this mean going forward? 

It means that the conflict is likely to endure for many more years. Assad will feel vindicated by his reelection and will likely reject any proposed meaningful negotiations with the opposition.

On the battlefield, Assad’s forces will continue to systematically seize territory from the fragmented, poorly equipped armed opposition. The regime has regained control over the critical corridor linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast via Homs and has either pushed rebel forces away from the suburbs of Damascus or surrounded and bombed them in a brutal but effective strategy of “surrender or starve.” The military is attempting to reverse recent rebel gains in the Golan Heights and Deraa province in the south and continues to chip away at rebel quarters of Aleppo.

Nevertheless, Assad’s military forces – the army, Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries and the National Defense Force militia – are badly overextended. When they concentrate their forces on a specific target, such as the recent offensive in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, they can usually triumph, but it is by no means certain that the regime can hold the ground after it redeploys to a new objective.

As for regaining the country as a whole, that is not a realistic scenario for now. Neither side is strong enough to decisively defeat the other.

(Christian Science Monitor)

See also: Victory in Syrian Election is Show of Assad’s Control (New York Times)

Securing the Syrian Regime

Independent groups fighting on the side of the Syrian regime have emerged and grown in size and influence over the last three years. These groups could pose a genuine danger to the regime if they were to get out of its control. If they gained a significant following on the ground and links to society, they would be able to negotiate with the regime for control and power and to work with foreign actors for their own interests, potentially against those of the regime. The regime’s priority over the past year has been to contain these groups by institutionalizing them to ensure their loyalty—a key component of a successful survival strategy.

The biggest of these groups is the National Defense Force (NDF), which was founded as a civilian force in Homs in late 2012 to fight alongside the Syrian Army and security forces; its structure later spread throughout Syria. However, prior to that, the NDF did not play a security role. Rather, its forces were originally created as informal popular committees (lijan shaabiyya), centered in villages and neighborhoods and aimed at protecting their own local areas. This was particularly important during the early days of the uprising: by drawing in youths from a given area, the committees categorized particular neighborhoods as loyal to the regime, distinguishing these from neighborhoods where youth engaged in protests and were disloyal to the regime.

As violence increased in mid-2012, the local committees became more deeply involved in fighting. Their growth on the ground began to present a potential danger to the regime. At this point, to ensure the committees’ ongoing engagement and loyalty, the regime began the process of institutionalizing these groups. These bodies within the NDF sprang up among many different segments of Syrian society, contrary to the assumption outside Syria that the NDF and other militias are entirely or mainly Alawite. Rather, as wholly localized bodies, they draw from the same sect, tribe, or neighborhood in which they are based. In Sweida and Jaramana, for example, they are comprised overwhelmingly of Druze, of Alawites in Homs and Latakia, Christians in Wadi al-Nasara, and Sunnis (particularly Arab clans) in Aleppo and its environs. They have also come to reflect local society in that their ranks draw on local civilians and retired professional soldiers, not military personnel on active duty. The leader of the NDF in Homs, for example, was a civil engineer and not a professional soldier before the uprising.

The creation of the NDF transformed and assembled these fighting groups into formal regiments under the support and control of the state. This process began in late 2012 and continued incrementally over the course of several months. The government slowly gave the fighting groups material support and recognition so that, by spring 2013, they existed as a formal institution. The NDF has secured administrative buildings for its leadership, training centers, an official stamp, standardized uniforms, a motto and flag, and monthly salaries. Weapons, salaries, and direction come from Damascus. The extent to which this strategy of institutionalization has succeeded is evident in the events following the March 23, 2014 killing of Hilal al-Assad, the leader of the Latakia National Defense Force. Rather than descending into internecine strife upon his death—as the cronies of a warlord might do—the National Defense Force in Latakia has kept up its existing institutional frame.

Other non-military local groups and associations to support the fighting forces have also emerged, further enmeshing civilians in state institutions. The Syrian Martyrs’ Association, founded in mid-2013, is a prime example. Though not exclusively for NDF veterans, it plays an important role in providing them services. The association builds hospitals, arranges funeral services and burials, plans leisure activities for children at schools, and provides material support to the families of members of the NDF. Several associations providing similar services have also arisen; all of them are composed of members of the local communities, just like the NDF. Also like the NDF, they have received official licenses from the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs; they even have bank accounts in the Syrian Commercial Bank to accept donations from members of society.

Members of the Martyrs’ Association and the NDF come from similar backgrounds; they are civilian, not military, and they come from the same local community. There is a tight linkage between members of the association and the NDF because fighters come from the same region, and often sect, as the local members of the association. The same family will often be involved in both activities—sending fighters to the NDF and supporting or being supported by the association. The presence of this association creates a general feeling of security inside the society for these fighters. It assures them that they are protected and that there is another civilian party that will support them and their families in the event of their injury or death. The organizations that have sprung up to support fighters and their families, by receiving official sanction, further draw the irregular fighting forces under the umbrella of the Syrian state. These linkages ensure that militias currently working for the state are deeply entwined with the Syrian regime.

Institutionalizing the groups that practiced violence at the beginning of the revolution and subordinating them within the frame of the state reflects an effective strategy of the Syrian regime to cope with the war. In doing so, the regime gained considerable leverage over these fighters. Their destiny is now linked to that of the regime, and the local societies from which the groups emerge are therefore also linked to the regime. For this reason, we are unlikely to see the leaders of these groups rebel against the Syrian state, at least not in the foreseeable future. (Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

Syrians Stream into Homs after Rebel Surrender

Thousands are starting to return home after two years of fighting.

Thousands of Syrians streamed into war-battered parts of the central city of Homs for the first time in nearly two years 10 May, many making plans to move back just days after rebels surrendered their strongholds to pro-government forces. Men, women and children fanned through the smashed ancient quarters of Homs, some in pickup trucks and bicycles, while most walked on a breezy, sunny day. A youth band banging drums and holding photographs of Assad marched through the area, adding a celebratory mood for those supporting his government amid the 3-year-old conflict. Residents scavenged what they could from their homes on 10 May, mostly clothes, dusty mattresses and some burned gas canisters, carrying them away in plastic bags and trolleys. “My house was completely destroyed and burnt, but I found some photos,” said Sarmad Mousa, 49, a resident of the old Hamidiyeh district. “They will remain a memory for me of the beautiful days we had here.” Some accused rebels of looting and burning their homes. Smaller crowds made the journey on 9 May. Other residents were already making plans to stay in their homes, sweeping away rubble and smashed glass from their homes.

Hundreds of rebels surrendered their stronghold in Homs to government forces in exchange for their safe passage to the nearby northern countryside as part of a deal that began on 7 May. Some 2,000 rebels — and civilians living there — were badly weakened by the nearly two-year blockade and heavy bombing of the area. The surrender deal is widely seen as a victory for Assad weeks ahead of a presidential election on June 3 that he is expected to win, giving him a mandate to continue his violent crackdown on rebels in the Syrian civil war, which activists say has killed more than 150,000 people. For rebels, it was a bitter day, said an opposition activist who uses the name Thaer Khalidiya. “The fighters left to rest and get treatment, but they want to return to liberate Homs,” he said over Skype. “They want to go back.” In Homs, municipal workers began fixing power lines while bulldozers cleared rubble from the street. The Syrian Red Crescent gave clean water, food and candles to residents who wanted to return to their homes, Gov. Talal Barazi said. But danger still lurked in some areas. A man, woman and child have been killed in three separate explosions in Homs after detonating rebel-planted mines left in their homes, Barazi said. At least five military vehicles carrying soldiers searched the area for more explosives. (Christian Science Monitor)


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