Syria’s elections Tuesday and President Bashar Assad’s victory in them were a bad joke, given the level of wreckage and continuing violence in the country, but American policy toward Syria continues to lag reality.
The Syrian government claimed a 73 percent turnout of eligible voters in Tuesday’s elections, with Assad having received 89 percent of the vote, against two other candidates in the race. The claimed outcome was better than Egypt’s late May noncontest, when 47 percent of Egyptians were claimed to have turned out to elect former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led last year’s coup d’etat there, with 97 percent of the vote, against one opponent.
The Syrian elections took place, of course, only in the part of the country that government forces control. They also took place minus the estimated 3 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country, 13 percent of the population, currently sheltering in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere, and the thousands of internally displaced Syrians in no position to vote.
Nonetheless, the fact that Assad’s regime felt it could hold elections, and that it was fully confident that Assad would win — a precondition to holding them — was clear evidence that he will not be departing the scene anytime soon, pending a successful assassination attempt. In general, his and his regime’s success can be attributed to the military success of his forces on the ground, even though significant parts of the country remain beyond their control. This phenomenon is due to his forces’ fighting ability and armaments, but also to the support they have received from Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, Iran, Iraqi exiles and Russia.
U.S. policy across the now three years of the Syrian upheaval has remained out of synchronization with what has occurred on the ground. President Barack Obama’s administration first perceived the Syrian uprising as part of the Arab Spring and trumpeted Assad’s departure from power as necessary and imminent.
The next chapter was the use of chemical weapons in the war, which prompted Washington to threaten military action. That undertaking was neutered when Russia proposed, instead, that Syria be obliged to give up its chemical weapons, which it has more or less done. In the meantime, the United States provided humanitarian and (oxymoronic) nonlethal military aid to allegedly moderate rebels.
Now, Mr. Obama is promising the Syrian rebels new, more lethal aid, as their defeat on the ground has become obvious, and prospects of a negotiated peace stand at zero. It doesn’t matter a whole lot unless he belatedly takes America to war in Syria or provokes one or other of the parties to the conflict to initiate terrorist action in the United States for revenge.