Monday the Syrian regime announced that presidential elections will be held June 3. The State Department dismissed the news. “The fact that you would even think you can hold free and fair elections in the middle of a civil war,” said a State Department spokesman, “is absurd.”
It is surely the case that the reelection of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will not be free and fair. The last time Syrians went to the polls in 2007, Assad won with 97.62 percent of the vote, a slight increase over his 97.29 tally in 2000. And this was all before Assad started shooting at unarmed protestors in March 2011. Now some 160,000 corpses later, it’s unlikely many Syrians will risk making their opposition to Assad known by voting against him. So yes, as the State Department notes, presidential elections in Syria, and especially now in the middle of a civil war, are absurd. The question then is, why is the Obama administration campaigning on behalf of Assad?
Assad will almost surely run uncontested as he did the last two times out, but Syria’s political future will not be decided at the ballot box. It will be determined on the field of battle where the two options are Assad and the opposition. While the White House has repeatedly claimed that Assad has lost his legitimacy to govern Syria, it has also made its displeasure with the opposition clear since the beginning of the uprising. Indeed, the administration has reasoned that it is because the opposition is fractious and fragmented that it merits neither the White House’s full political support, nor sufficient military assistance to topple the regime.
The big problem, says the White House, is that the opposition lacks a comprehensive and inclusive political program. “Obviously, a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime,” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in 2011. “It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender.” The new government, Clinton said at the time, must be “‘measured, deliberate and utterly devoid of revenge.”
The administration’s public statements regarding a post-Assad Syria showed that it misunderstood not only the nature of sectarian conflict, but also the thrust of Assad’s particular project. It was Assad after all who had established the rules of the bloody game of revenge that the White House warned his victims not to play. The regime’s campaign of sectarian cleansing is meant to ensure that the Sunni community’s inevitable desire to call in blood debts would compel the Alawites and other minority communities to align themselves with the regime. As Tony Badran, fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in 2012, the “pattern of deliberate sectarian killings [is] the product of cold deliberation by Assad. The Syrian dictator is seeking to irredeemably tie the fate of the Alawites to his own.”
The administration’s insistence that a post-Assad dispensation show special care to minorities, many of whom have fought alongside Assad, openly backed him, or profited from his depredations, is evidence of a ghoulish indifference to the regime’s victims, the vast majority of whom have been Sunnis. Furthermore, it echoes and substantiates Assad’s strategic messaging campaign that he, unlike the Sunni majority opposition, protects Syria’s minority communities.
Administration officials argue that until the opposition can make similar assurances regarding “protection for Christian and other religious minorities” Assad is likely to stay in power. As the former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said last month, the opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime.” In other words, unless the Sunnis promise not to make war against the minorities who are killing them, they won’t win over the minorities, and they sure aren’t going to win American support.
Another of the administration’s former Syria hands rightly described this as “blaming the victim.” Frederic Hof, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, challenges Ford’s contention, arguing that “opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification.” In laying the blame primarily on the opposition, Hof writes, Ford exculpates the White House for “even partial responsibility for a policy catastrophe and humanitarian abomination.” Ford, Hof explains, is not just articulating his own point of view, but the White House’s, too. Even though Ford has left the administration, writes Hof, “he is not yet free to speak his mind. He is still on the government payroll and is therefore required to adhere to official policy and related talking points when speaking publicly.”
Ford repeated the same White House talking points last week in a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he once again scolded the opposition (starting here at around 42.30) for its failure to reach out to the communities that support Assad, and explain that they have a vision that doesn’t include massacres or retaliation.
It is peculiar that since the beginning of the Syrian rebellion, the country’s minority communities have virtually taken on the status of an endangered species. From this perspective, the minorities are caught between a hammer and an anvil, the Assad regime and the opposition, and it is only logical that as bad as Assad might be, he’s preferable to a gang of bloodthirsty Sunnis bent on revenge. The reality is that while some of the minorities really do just want to keep their heads down and hope for the best, many others have actively aligned themselves with Assad and his allies. Indeed, as this sign proclaiming “Assad or we burn the country” shows, it is many of the minorities who give proof they have no interest in an inclusive Syria—a country under the “rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender”—but are rather determined to vanquish their Sunni neighbors.
The fact that the White House has made a fetish of protecting minorities, even as many of these rare wondrous birds have assisted in the slaughter of men, women, and children, shows that its Syria policy is not only incoherent but morally grotesque.
In spite of all the fancy words about freedom and equality the Americans like to toss around, Assad believes, at bottom they’re just as sectarian as Middle Easterners—they care only about their own tribe. What the Americans mean when they say “minorities” is Christians, whose lives they value above all, even if their hands are dripping with the blood of innocents. What the Americans really think, Assad tells himself, is that the rest of the lot, the Sunnis, are expendable.
And this is the gory campaign for which Assad has enlisted the Obama White House’s continued political support—the administration prefers Assad to the opposition because even if he’s spent the last three years putting Sunnis through a meat-grinder, well, at least he says he protects minorities.