Syrians go to the polls today for a presidential “election” in the midst of a civil war that has killed an estimated 150,000 people, displaced 6 million internally, and generated 3 million refugees. President Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled Syria since 2000, is expected to win handily over the two virtually unknown candidates running against him. The election is not expected to contribute to an end to the violence in Syria, but might actually make the fighting worse as the government and the rebels both dig in their heels. Oddly enough, the only winner on election night (aside from Assad himself) might be the international effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Syria’s remaining chemical weapons have been held hostage for the last month by Syrian domestic politics. Once Assad is re-elected for his third seven-year term, he may feel secure enough to implement the final stages of Syria’s chemical disarmament.
Since announcing its intent on April 21 to hold presidential elections, Syria has largely suspended its efforts to implement a plan brokered by the United States and Russian and overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international organization charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to get rid of its chemical weapons. Under the plan, Syria agreed to either destroy or transfer to international custody its stockpile of 1,300 tons of chemical warfare agents and precursors. Since January, Syria has been slowly shipping chemicals to the port of Latakia where they are loaded onto Norwegian and Danish ships for eventual transport to destruction sites in Europe and a US ship equipped with a sophisticated chemical destruction system.
The deadline for Syria to remove the last of its chemicals expired on April 27 with 8% of its stockpile, approximately 100 tons of nerve agent precursors and other chemicals, still inside of the country. The most recent shipment of chemicals out of Syria occurred on April 24. The remaining chemicals are believed to be located at a military airbase east of Damascus in an area that has been the scene of heavy fighting lately between the government and rebel forces. On April 28, the Syrian government informed the OPCW that it was no longer able to access this last chemical weapon storage facility by road due to the fighting. That same day, President Assad announced that he was entering the presidential race and the campaign swung into high gear in areas loyal to the regime.
Although the outcome of the election is not in doubt, the government has used the past month and a half to bolster its support among groups in the country that remain loyal to the regime. What matters to Assad is not how “free and fair” the international community views the election, but how effectively it consolidates his power and reinforces his legitimacy among the elites and masses who make up his base. The regime will no doubt manipulate the results of the election to try to send a signal to the opposition that Assad’s hold on power remains strong and that he retains the ability to prosecute his war against so-called “terrorists” with unrelenting vigor.
So why do I think the Syrian presidential election will affect the level of Syria’s cooperation with the OPCW? If Syria shipped the last 100 tons of its chemicals out of the country during the middle of the election, it would have provided the United States and its allies with a much-needed victory to trumpet. Given the sad lack of progress on any other aspect of the Syrian conflict, the United States and its allies would have trumpeted this achievement quite loudly. At the same time, this milestone in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons would have reminded Syrians that they were forfeiting a major pillar of their national security and that Assad agreed to the deal out of fear of American airstrikes. All of this risked undermining the narrative that the regime has been trying to cultivate that Assad is the only leader strong enough to keep Syria together, fight the “terrorists,” and resist foreign intervention. Even dictators understand the importance of “staying on message” during an election, no matter how rigged it is. Once the election is over, the United States and its allies need to increase the pressure on Syria to complete the unfinished business of destroying its chemical weapons program.