JOUMANA SEIKALY: Hello everybody. This is Carnegie Middle East Center Beirut. My name is Joumana Seikaly, and I am the communications coordinator. Welcome to our media call about the Syrian elections. With me are Dr. Lina Khatib, who is the center’s director, and Dr. Yezid Sayigh, who is senior associate, and they will be discussing today the effects of the Syrian elections. So to start, I have a first question, which is the following: before we get to all the possible regional effects of the election, why do you think it was necessary or Bashar al-Assad thought it was useful to have such an election in the first place? Lina, would you like to begin?
LINA KHATIB: Sure, hello.
It’s important for Bashar al-Assad to hold an election to show the international community that he is a legitimate leader in the eyes of his own people. So it’s very important for the Assad regime to have a high turnover of voters in this election, and also, to consolidate the position of Assad in power for another term, thereby giving him more time to negotiate with the international community further down the line, and also, try to secure his position vis-à-vis the new political rivals that are emerging in Syria as result of the conflict.
JOUMANA SEIKALY: And Yezid?
YEZID SAYIGH: I’ll add something there, which is that Bashar al-Assad has emphasized all along that he’s speaking as the president of the state of Syria and not simply at the leader of the regime or a particular group—not even only of the ruling Baath parties. He’s emphasized that he stands above them all, and he’s constantly emphasized the importance of speaking in the name of Syrian sovereignty, the Syrian state. And so, coming to the scheduled election for the presidency, I think he probably felt that it was necessary to go through the exercise in order to reinforce the same narrative. And moreover, part of the regime narrative all along has been about business as usual, we face a crisis and a challenge, an outside conspiracy; however, the state continues to function as normal, and so, holding an election is another sign of normalcy.
JOUMANA SEIKALY: Okay. The floor is open to questions if anybody would like to ask a question.
REPORTER: May I ask a question?
JOUMANA SEIKALY: Yes, please go ahead. But could you please state your name?
REPORTER: This is Liz Sly with the Washington Post. Could you please speak a little bit about what you expect to happen after the elections and where things will go from here and whether there is any kind of plan or a change in government might happen?
YEZID SAYIGH: Well, at one level I think nothing will change—in the sense that the opposition camp and those in the Friends of Syria who support it obviously will attach no credibility or credence to the election itself. They’ll attach no importance to whatever Bashar al-Assad and the regime may claim; whether about the turnout which is one interesting thing we were all looking forward to see; whether about the actual vote for him or against—or for any of the other candidates. I think it’s clear that those that are opposed to him aren’t going to attach any importance to any of this, much as people in the regime camp itself are going to maintain their support and loyalty for Bashar al-Assad no matter what the outcome--or the stated outcome-- is. So, in that sense, the election does nothing. However, I think that one important thing will be that Western countries, in particular, (maybe some of the regional members of the Friends of Syria, who over the past half a year or more have been receiving assessments from their staff on the ground in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, or those who go to Damascus, about the level of support for Assad among Syrians) it may be that if reports start coming in that those who voted for Bashar al-Assad did so with some real conviction, whatever that may be, then I think this could end up feeding into the sort of perception among some of the Friends of Syria nations that the regime has a certain level of domestic political constituency and standing that will allow it to continue sort of surviving. That’s, I think, something which lies behind all the debates about what is the turnout, what is the actual vote—that’s something we can’t be sure of; but I would anticipate that as one possible important outcome.
LINA KHATIB: I will add something about the security agenda, which I expect will be a key theme for Assad when he starts his new term. I expect Assad to conduct a kind of ceremonial government reshuffle to further emphasize and consolidate his narrative about the regime’s fight against extremists, which is the narrative that the regime has been using to describe the conflict. So, I expect government reshuffles, emphasizing perhaps a new security plan for Syria—not necessarily a real security plan—but at least to show that the regime is doing something in that regard, with the aim of, further down the line, trying to get international backing to implement partnerships to counter “terrorism” between quotation marks.
REPORTER: Hi, it’s Patrick Martin at the Global Mail in Canada. Yezid and Lina, thank you for doing this today—it’s terrific. My question is: Is there any sense of how accurate the count will be in this election? Is there any kind of monitoring? Any kind of opportunity for people to see that there’s any shred of legitimacy to the count itself?
YEZID SAYIGH: I imagine that is going to be a very fragmented picture. There are probably places where it’s relatively easy and safe to assess, sort of turnout, at least in an impressionistic way; for instance, at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut or in Amman. That’s maybe possible. In some parts of Syria, you know, in Homs, or in Lattakia, or Damascus, there may be areas where observers are able to note what seems to be the level of turnout, for instance. But, clearly, to get an overall picture is going to be extremely difficult, because there’s no assurance of having that kind of ability to observe in a sufficient number of places by people who are equally competent or impartial. I think there’s going to be some war of narrative of course, with the regime claiming to have the true universal figures from the ballot boxes. There are going to be countless counterclaims, I imagine, from opposition sources with anecdotal sort of accounts of specific fraud that occurred here or there. I doubt we’ll ever come away with a genuine picture of actual turnout, actual figures. Having said all of that, it’s not I think clear, a priori, that the regime will have to forge the actual figures, because it may well be that—although the overall turnout will be low for all sorts of reasons, including displacement and having many people outside the country—it may be that of those who actually go to the polling stations inside or outside Syria, that many of them, you know, would actually, quite generally, vote for Assad; whether because they like him or because they fear the consequences of not voting at all and not voting for him is another issue. But I think there, at least, we may find that the figures on the vote—of who voted for Assad and who didn’t — could potentially be accurate.
LINA KHATIB: I will add that this election is being conducted in the absence of independent observers and election monitors. So, there is no way to verify the validity of the votes in this election. The second thing is that considering that Syrian expats have already voted, there are reports that Syrian expats and refugees have been directly threatened if they do not vote. So, a lot of people who have already showed up to vote did so out of direct intimidation. In Lebanon, for example, refugees were told that if they do not vote, they would never be allowed back into Syria; other people have been threatened with fines; others have been threatened that their families back in Syria would be harmed if they do not show up to vote. The third thing is that in Lebanon, and this is where we are so I can speak about this with confidence, there was an orchestrated public relations campaign to make a big show out of large numbers of Syrians showing up to the Syrian Embassy in order to vote. And this was deliberate so that the international community can see that Syrians are indeed rallying behind the election—not just Assad—but the election as a legitimate step by the Syrian state.
REPORTER: Hi, it’s Patrick Martin again. Is there any one candidate or any two candidates running against Assad that we could say represent the opposition in any way? That is, a vote for X means a vote seriously in favor of the opposition agenda?
YEZID SAYIGH: Well, I don’t think a vote for either of the other candidates is significant in any way. Certainly, neither represents the opposition. Casting a blank vote or an X vote or voting for someone other than Assad could be seen as maybe, you know something that, a Syrian feeling, they were forced to vote, could somehow nonetheless register some kind of protest or opposition. But I mean I frankly would not attach any political significance to that. I think the bottom line is those taking part in the election, by voting that is, are doing so either because, you know, for a small number, they genuinely support the regime, and for another number, because they are genuinely afraid of the consequences of not voting, and for the vast majority, those who aren’t voting aren’t voting because they are physically unable to do so at all or have absolutely no confidence in the process. I don’t think, however, any vote can be seen as a vote for the opposition today, any more than it was ever possible in the past, because one of things that I think is striking, and this comes through what Lina was saying earlier, is that I think Lebanon showed us very interestingly that the people who’ve been under this regime for so long haven’t yet lost the habit of fearing its ability to reach them even outside the country. And there are no doubt, a lot of people in Syria, who have voted because they do fear the regime can monitor, can note who went and who didn’t go, work out where their families are; and the fact that the regime probably has lost of that kind of tentacular, omnipresent ability, it doesn’t really change much for an individual who’s just scared of the consequences. And, there are people who over the past two or three years have gone back for military service, although the regime couldn’t reach them here, just because they could send the papers to them, and again the same logic of fear, I think, meant that probably a lot of people probably felt under a lot of pressure to go to back and do these things that were expected of them. And I think that’s one of the most interesting things about this election.
LINA KHATIB: You asked about the two candidates who are running against Assad. These two candidates are actually lawmakers who have not been prominent in the Syrian scene and not well known at all. They are running without political programs, sometimes without a real campaign. It is very clear that these two candidates have been in a way, drafted by the regime in order to show that this is a competitive election, but we shouldn’t read too much into their selection beyond this ceremonial framework.
REPORTER: How should we interpret the results today? What can we learn from the outcome for tomorrow?
YEZID SAYIGH: Well, as I was arguing earlier, I don’t think the election is politically important in and of itself whatever the result. I mean, you know, whether Bashar is announced one with 93% of the vote, or 88% of the vote, or 73% of the vote, whatever the percentage is, neither you nor I nor anyone else in Syria will ever be genuinely confident about that number and what it really implies. So I don’t think we can attach much importance to that. What is important, I think, is again, that the regime or at least Bashar al-Assad attaches importance to maintaining the façade, maintaining the performance of the state going about its business as usual. One real question is whether any of the Friends of Syria nations, in particular Western ones, and others as well, denouncing the election as a fraud in public — what they will take away in private. And I think that if their intelligence is that of those who voted, there was a significant number who voted with any sort of genuine commitment. If this is to be taken as some measure of the regime’s ability to draw on its domestic constituency to—whether by scaring people or whatever — but if from that, the conclusion is, this is a regime that still has a grip on people and can still coerce and scare them into conforming then I think that’s what the Friends of Syria will wonder about and maybe factor into their policy in the coming period. As Lina suggested right at the start, Bashar al-Assad will try to use this in the event of some negotiation happening. We’re not talking about a Geneva-style negotiation, but about possibly new kinds of feelers being put forward to the Syrian region or being put out by the Syrian regime. So the question is whether the selection will feed into that process on the other side as well.
REPORTER: But if I could just ask you on the ground, who’s going to vote tomorrow? What are the exact regions that are totally under the control of the opposition, be it of the moderate opposition or of the Islamist militias? And what are the regions where voting would be totally normal?
YEZID SAYIGH: Well, we saw the incident last week where there was a mortar attack on an election tent in Daraa in the regime held there, part of Daraa, that’s an example of a city that is almost completely surrounded by opposition-held territory and towns and villages and itself is very largely held by the opposition. And yet the regime still holds onto a part of the town to maintain the appearance of maintaining normal administrative function and where they were campaigning. Now, I think what we’ll see is that in regime-held areas, there’ll be a push through the Ba'ath Party, maybe through schools, and you know, from people, kids being encouraged, encouraging their parents to vote, government employees being expected to vote, et cetera, so that’s where the votes will come from. And clearly areas like the coastal region will probably have a higher percentage of people showing up, whether voluntarily or not, and areas that are contested or where there’s a fear of mortar fire, et cetera, where there will be a lower turnout. But beyond that, I think that everywhere else in Syria, and certainly in refugee camps outside, et cetera, for instance, in Jordan where the ability of regime supporters to coerce refugees is much much lower... Clearly there, I think there’s been next to zero turnout; I mean certainly in opposition-held areas, there will be no turnout.
REPORTER: But what do they represent those voters? We heard that all those who are going to vote represent around 60% of the population or 40% of the territory? Do you have any estimations or numbers at all?
YEZID SAYIGH: No, I don’t think anyone could credibly claim to have accurate estimates of these numbers. After all, the last time Bashar al-Assad was elected president was in a referendum, where there was a yes/no choice. That wasn’t obviously an election, and the results were predictably high. Now how could anyone really work out how many of the people actually did cast a vote in a referendum? How many of them were there willingly? How many of them made the choice they preferred? And today, it’s very evident that very few people believe that this is anything more than another referendum of yes or no for Bashar al-Assad. Now there will be those who, for 2 or 3 years, have said things like “Bashar al-Assad or no Syria” and so on—the very slogans we’ve heard in Arabic—and there will be people who will vote for Bashar al-Assad very willingly. But there’ll also going to be a lot of people who vote for Bashar who don’t do so willingly. But for me (or anyone I think) to give you estimates of what proportion is totally false. We can all assume that a great many Syrians don’t feel that Bashar al-Assad is a legitimate choice. Whether these people in a normal election would have then cast a blank vote; voted against him; in the absence of any credible alternative candidate, whether there are people who today after 3 years of war actually prefer Bashar al-Assad just because they think it’s the only way of getting out of the war… we just don’t have anything that allows us to attach a number to these assumptions.
REPORTER: Hi, it’s Patrick Martin again. Did Assad campaign in any way?
YEZID SAYIGH: To some extent.
LINA KHATIB: Yes, he did campaign, but not physically on the ground obviously, so we’ve seen very few appearances by Assad in public. But we have seen a lot of campaigns through the media: a lot of campaigns urging Syrians to vote on Syrian television, posters in the street, groups of people hired by the state to encourage people in different neighborhoods to participate in the election. So in that sense the campaigning did happen, but obviously, the campaigning was not a traditional kind of campaign.
REPORTER: In Egypt, Field Marshall Al-Sisi conducted a campaign rather along those lines too. He had one major interview, which was then broadcast to the country and didn’t step outside of his office or the TV studio from then on as I understand.
LINA KHATIB: Yes, and there are some similarities that can be drawn between the two elections: the key one being both men are confident that they are going to win the election. And when you’re confident that you’re going to win the election, because of fear, whether indirect fear or direct fear, on part of your population, then there’s no need for a political program as such; there’s no need for campaigning. What I mean by fear—in Egypt, the people who voted for Sisi were to, a certain degree, motivated by the fear intensifying in Egypt regarding the security situation. In Syria, we have both that as well as direct intimidation by the state. So, whole populations in both countries have been dominated by a sense of fear which is indirectly translating into reassurances for the respective presidential candidates in the countries.
YEZID SAYIGH: I just wanted to add since you mentioned Egypt, one of the potential developments that might come out of this is Bashar al-Assad could start arguing, or the Russians could on his behalf, that the West has accepted, in effect, the outcome of an election, a presidential election, in Egypt that is dubious to say the least, that also wasn’t monitored properly by international electoral observers, the European mission pronounced that the limits to its action and ability to bring in equipment meant that it couldn’t verify the legitimacy of the election, et cetera. And yet the West is, in effect, dealing with the outcome. And I fear that Bashar will try to present that kind of argument saying, basically, what is the big difference between his election and that in Egypt, and if the West could live with one, well then it may as well live with the other. So, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, because this is now the third election that’s been conducted in a dubious way, if you count also the Algerian election quite recently, where again, you know, you had a highly skewed campaign process and selection process.
REPORTER: What about the minorities, going back to Syria? Do you expect Christians, Druze, and Kurds to vote partially or to vote massively? What do you think is the role of these minorities?
YEZID SAYIGH: I suspect the issue is more a matter of people living — I mean who controls the particular area where people — we assume to be of one community or another live. So if any area like Suweida is under strong regime control, then you would expect both the polling to take place and there to be a relatively high turnout compared to whatever the average is overall. In Kurdish areas, on the other hand, which are now not really in full government control, or where the PYD or others are in control, then in some areas, there’ll probably be no turnout whatsoever because there’s no chance of holding a poll. What’s unclear is that in areas, in parts of, in some of the cities in Qamishli, for instance, or Hasakah, where there is sort of shared control—there’s a condominium, in a way, of government and PYD and other administrative control—in those areas, there may be polling stations; I don’t have the facts, but I would imagine turnout is also going to be pretty low, generally speaking. So I think rather than say Christians or Druze or others will vote as a community, it’s more significant to say who’s in control where, and that I think will tell us more what the pattern will be.
REPORTER: What about percentages in Lebanon? We saw that many Syrians went to vote. But at the same time other comments were that dense crowds of voters do not represent at the end a big proportion of the total refugee population in Lebanon.
YEZID SAYIGH: But, if I understand what the question is behind that. And again, you’re going back to numbers, and I really question whether any of us has any accurate data to interpret numbers. You’re right in the factual sense that…
REPORTER: This is the angle of my article.
YEZID SAYIGH: No, fair enough. I understand that, but what I’m saying, my answer, bottom answer, is that the numbers are going to be a political football. Everyone will kick them around whichever way they want no matter what facts we can present, anyone can present, the picture is going to be so fragmented, so partial, and I think as I was starting to say, the point underlying your question is this: I mean the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who voted is going to be a tiny proportion of the total. Even if we assume that every vote cast in Lebanon was a genuine vote — the impact on the overall number is going to be marginal, and the real issue here, once again, whether it’s about Syrian refugees or Syrians voting in Damascus or Lattakia, is how many of them are expressing a completely free will? Not only because the election is so highly engineered and stage-managed where we have two candidates who are unknown, who have no history , who haven’t been able to present a political program, who’ve held back—they’ve only spoken about economic issues. I mean even leaving aside that this is not a genuine election, by that definition, but of all those who are casting a vote, even if it was a simple yes no vote as in the past, how many of the people voting yes for Assad can we assume are voting out of total conviction? We have no way of knowing this in this kind of system. The point I was making earlier several times is that what is very striking, I think, is the way in which people, who have been under this system for so many years, are so used to thinking that the system knows everything, that the regime knows everything, that the security services are everywhere, that if they vote in any way against what is expected or demanded of them, they will be found out and will pay the consequences. This is a tremendously very powerful legacy, which means that people may actually go into a polling station, and even if in fact they had the free choice in voting whichever way they wanted—I mean even if we wanted to establish that objectively, scientifically—they are so convinced that it’s a risk that they will still vote for Assad. I mean I think this is what is so very clear in this election—that people vote on the basis of this legacy when they actually vote.
REPORTER: I’d like to ask a question.
JOUMANA SEIKALY: Yes, your name please, first.
REPORTER: Marlin Dick from the Daily Star in Beirut.
JOUMANA SEIKALY: Hello Marlin, go ahead.
REPORTER: I wanted to ask again just a little bit more about the international community reaction —whether that’s in some Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or the Western capitals—other than verbal condemnation, as Dr. Sayigh said we have to watch out it as it plays out in terms of feelers, but are we expecting, then, that this election will take place, generate a lot of verbal condemnation, but not necessarily anything, any new approaches? Or do you think we’re going to begin a new phase of looking for ways to deal with the regime?
LINA KHATIB: So far it doesn’t look like the international community is fazed either way by this election. Meaning that regional and international policies regarding the Syrian conflict are ongoing regardless of whether the election happens or not. One thing, though, is that, in a way, the international community has already anticipated that this election would take place and Bashar would be in power for some time. So, when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the plans that they have for Syria have been debated while taking into consideration that Bashar will be there for some time, and they are still interested in regime change. The United States, on the other hand, also implicitly acknowledges that Bashar will be there for some time and is taking a very gradual process when it comes to increasing support for the opposition on the ground. So, in a way, by doing this, the international community has implicitly let this election happen because, there is little that they have actively done to prevent it from happening in the first place. Because of their very—because of their taking, a kind of reactive approach to the Syrian conflict as opposed to a proactive one, in terms of their foreign policies.
REPORTER: Earlier you were mentioning about the Geneva and the—and I believe there was a mention about Geneva. It is too early to assume that the fate of Geneva is that it’s not going to be reconvened? Or is there still a possibility that after all the criticism, that the regime—that Western countries could go back to demanding the resurrection of Geneva?
YEZID SAYIGH: I don’t think Geneva is on the table for now. Nothing sufficient will have changed since the failure of Geneva II talks in February for the US, the Europeans, and regional partners to seriously consider investing any political capital with Russia or others, such as Iran, to re-launch a Geneva process. I think that is dead for a while now and will remain so. What may emerge over some time is something maybe much more discreet and behind the scenes, which is Americans and Europeans and possibly some Arabs, possibly the Qataris for instance, talking to some members of the opposition and some people in Russia, et cetera, about taking stock and considering how to take this forward given that Bashar will be there for another term, whether he sees it out entirely or not. But that is to speculate about a political dynamic for which we have little basis at the moment. The regime, at the moment, doesn’t look like it’s ready for any serious shift in its political position and is probably less, rather than more, open to any kind of engagement of the type that was envisioned in Geneva II. So, if we’re even further away from that, I think that no dialogue is going to start even in something behind the scenes, unless anyone in the Friends of Syria is now ready to accept even worse terms than before. And I think although that could happen down the line, for now, that’s not, I think, the case. For now, it looks more like the US and Europeans and others are still playing the game of leveling the playing field, helping the opposition, encouraging it, enabling the armed rebellion to improve its position in the field, with the hope of acquiring more leverage against the regime to make it negotiate seriously. We’re still in that ballgame of leverage and getting the regime to negotiate seriously, as if nothing in the past year showed us that this logic isn’t going anywhere and that the sort of support provided by the Friends of Syria to the opposition and its armed wing has been insufficient. And, so far, we don’t really see—despite all the talk of anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles—we don’t really have enough evidence of a significant shift in the kind of support that would bring about that kind of shift on the ground, that would then bring the regime to start negotiating seriously. I think we’re still a long way away from that. So, I don’t see this election kick-starting any kind of new political dialogue, whether open or behind the scenes.
REPORTER: Would there be any possibility of further moves in terms of diplomacy, such as closing more embassies, or pressure in that direction?
YEZID SAYIGH: That could happen, but that’s just gestures. I mean, you know, offering the national coalition an embassy building here or there, is a way of not doing any of the other things that might have a more material impact. So, we’re still in the domain of gesture politics, and even the military assistance, including the provision of some tow anti-tank missiles to certain rebel groups hasn’t reached the scope or scale of making that kind of difference to the military balance, we’re very far still from that. So, you know, the diplomatic stuff is mere window-dressing.
JOUMANA SEIKALY: Alright, thank you everybody for joining us. This brings our conference call to an end. Thank you very much.