A lot has changed in the seven years since Syria’s last presidential election back in 2007. But the expected result hasn’t.
After all the lives lost in the country’s three-year civil war, it’s hard to imagine these — officially the first multiparty elections in Syrian history — will have any impact on the lives of those on the ground.
“The majority of the population, and I’m one of them, don’t care who’s going to be the next president in Syria,” said John Tafas, a Syrian-American living in Seattle with family still within Syria’s borders. “The only thing I care about is peace to all people, and whoever is going to restore that peace, I will solute that person.”
It’s hard to say if Tuesday’s election will be that catalyst for peace, especially with the United States publicly dismissing the election as a farce and much of the country still under opposition control. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain for incumbent president Bashar Al-Assad.
Despite the fact that over a third of the country’s population has been displaced since the start of the war, an Assad victory seems virtually guaranteed. The Syrian parliament recently passed a bill barring most members of the opposition from running for office, with the only candidates that met all requirements being two little-known parliament members.
For Assad, this could be the mark of legitimacy his regime has been seeking since the start of the war — at least in the eyes of his allies. Although his imminent victory may not sway the opinions of Western powers, Iran is already hailing an Assad win as evidence that Western intervention in the conflict has failed.
“This is a strategic failure for the Western, Arab and Zionist front and a big victory for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi told Iran’s government-owned PRESS TV.
It’s no surprise that many others are already calling the elections a sham, with opposition groups boycotting them entirely. Even local Syrians with no loyalties to either side of the conflict echo these sympathies.
“People don’t care about Assad, people care about things going back to normal,” said Bashar Kabor, president of the Syrian American Coordination Committee of Washington (SACCWA). “People want to go back to their homes, they’re tired of living in refugee camps… With the forces that are playing the Syrian battlefield, this won’t change the way things are going. An election is largely meaningless.”
Kabor says he doesn’t like to involve himself with the political side of the conflict. Instead, he focuses his attention solely on the humanitarian disaster left in the war’s deadly wake. He founded SACCWA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing relief aid to displaced Syrians, in late 2012. Since then, his work with the organization has taken him to refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where the group helped deliver basic necessities like food, clothing and medical supplies.
“I try to avoid taking a political stance on it, but the Syrian crisis is a calamity,” he said. “Actually, I’m not going to call it a crisis. It’s beyond crisis. It’s a major collapse. It’s a holocaust, but not against one ethnic group. It’s a holocaust against a whole population.”
More than 162 thousand people have lost their lives since the start of the war, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
And the question of blame has only grown more complicated as the war drags on. What began with groups of scattered democracy-minded protesters speaking out against the oppressive regime has since evolved into an imbroglio of autonomous rebel and militia groups, both foreign and domestic, each fighting for their own slice of the Syrian pie.
Kabor thinks of it as if Syria is a drowning man who can’t swim, with each military faction representing a different part of his body. He doesn’t know how to properly maneuver himself through the water, and so he begins to push and reach out with his limbs in all directions in a desperate attempt to reach the surface.
“His legs and arms are just moving in whichever direction, but everyone knows that he’s not going to make it, because those movements expend energy,” he said. “You lose all chances of survival by using up all your energy in a non-productive way.”
To call the efforts of some factions non-productive is an understatement. Many groups actively promote heavily sectarian ideologies, and members of both the opposition and the Assad regime have been accused of indiscriminately killing civilians by the hundreds.
In the last year, we’ve seen the torturing of hospital patients, beheading of civilians, use of chemical weapons, and most recently, modern day crucifixions. And no one faction, on either side, seems to have clean hands.
“If you think the other party is bad, don’t demonstrate a worse example, which will terrify me more.” Tafas said. “I am very proud of my Aramaic and Syrian roots, but why would I choose to stay in the U.S. if I could not see a brighter future here?”
The grim reality of the matter is that Tuesday’s elections really might not matter at all. All of Syria’s previous elections have been simple referendums asking voters to cast “yes” or “no” in response to the parliament’s presidential recommendations, (always either Bashar Al-Assad or his father, Hafez). Although the new Syrian constitution now permits others outside of Assad’s Ba’ath Party to chase the presidency, it is highly unlikely that Syria will see a shift in governmental power.
But despite everything, Kobar’s hope for his country doesn’t sway. By continuing his focus on those who need help the most, he looks past the political sectarianism that now grips the country and sees a light at the end of a very long tunnel.
“I think there is hope, because what is the alternative?” he asked. “Without hope, there is nothing else.”