Assad decided to hold parliamentary elections the same day the Geneva talks resumed. Was this a coincidence? More like a slap in the face.
What parliamentary elections?
On the same day that the Geneva talks concerning a peace in Syria resumed, President Bashar al-Assad decided to hold parliamentary elections in the regions still under government control. Areas under rebel control boycotted the elections. International backers of many of the combatant groups set a timetable last year in Vienna for new presidential elections. These parliamentary elections were not part of that timetable and were instead in line with the normal electoral schedule. The United States, Germany, France, and most of the international community apart from Russia are declaring these elections as phony.
Assad remains steady in his resolve to maintain power, describing voter turnout as “unprecedented” compared to parliamentary elections in the past few decades. This is interesting, considering that there are millions of displaced Syrians both within and outside of its borders, as well as the individuals in rebel territories, whom were unaccounted for in this election.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Shaefer said, “Holding free and fair elections is simply impossible in the current situation, with all the refugees, in a full civil war situation. All reports show that and so does common sense.”
The election demonstrates Assad’s determination to block rebel demands of a political transition. And if those elections were not sufficient to demonstrate his resolve, Syrian government forces launched a new offensive against rebel-held parts of Aleppo despite the cease-fire. Russia provided air support for these operations and the resultant fighting killed 34 people: 14 pro-government soldiers and 20 rebel fighters.
Where is Russia’s Position on this Election?
The Russian Foreign Minister commented on the elections, saying, “These elections held today are designed to play this role of not allowing a legal vacuum.”
The Russians are all over the map. On the one hand, Russia backed the UN Security Council Resolution that was adopted in December that called for a transitional government and for elections to be held within 18 months in Syria. In the past few weeks, however, Assad has dismissed the possibility of several provisions of that document.
At the same time, Russia has continued to throw its weight behind Assad. Not only has Russia provided key air support to Assad throughout the Spring, , but also it was Russia who helped Assad seize the initiative last week. Considering that a similar offensive halted peace talks in February, this involvement is significant.
Even Iran has noted how these airstrikes pose a serious threat to the political process that is underway in Geneva, saying that they “could harm the political process a day after Russia said it had asked the United States to stop a mobilization of militants near Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city until the conflict erupted in 2011.”
Syria continues to crumble.
The Syrian civil war started in the city of Deraa in 2011, when locals took to the street after 15 school children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall. It is not a surprise then that one of the key demands of the opposition has been that the Syrian president resigns.
The cease-fire that was enabled by Russian and US intervention has been critical for the peace talks to occur. This week’s government offensive against rebel forces is more evidence that a cease-fire exists only nominally. A Syrian official, who claimed anonymity in his comments, said that, “on the ground the truce does not exist.” He said tension in Syria would continue to increase in the coming months.
What does this mean for the Geneva peace talks?
Salem al-Meslet, the spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, said that Assad does not want a political solution. The High Negotiations Committee is the opposition’s representative body in Geneva.
It is difficult to imagine Assad conceding to rebel political demands in the peace talks: he held invalid parliamentary elections on the same day as the peace talks commenced, and concurrently ignored the ceasefire by proceeding offensively against the rebels.
The likelihood that a fruitful negotiation will emerge from the Geneva talks is bleak. Special envoy to the UN, Steffan de Mistura, has described these talks as “baby steps,” noting that they are just proxy talks. The government and opposition delegations cannot sit in the same room, and because of the parliamentary elections, the government delegation was not set to arrive in Geneva until Friday The opposition delegation arrived Wednesday. The international community can hold its breath over the Geneva talks, but a concession of the type being demanded of Assad is unlikely.