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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma vote during a referendum on a new constitution at a polling station in a Syrian TV station building in Damascus

The besieged Bashar al-Assad, once the darling of Western TV networks on account of being the “reformer” president of Syria, these days has very few outlets carrying his messages. One of them was Russia’s RT channel, through which Assad stated there that he had no intention of leaving Syria, and, also, that the Syrian people will decide their fate through ‘’the ballot box.’’ Assad said so without blinking, but save for himself and maybe the friendly interviewers, nobody believes the oxymoron of free elections in an Assad-ruled Syria.

The real question is, whether any elections can take place in Syria under Assad, as a vital element in a process of national reconstruction and healing. To answer that, we need to provide some historic context.

Since independence in 1946, Syria had three rounds of relatively free elections – in November 1949, then, in September 1954, and the third and last, in December 1961.

There are three important points to be made about these rounds of elections and their impact on the political evolution of the country.

First, each round of elections failed to bring about a period of political stability, in a country known to be chronically unstable. General Adib Shishakli took over in December 1949 and dissolved the then newly-elected parliament. In 1954, the elections took place after the removal of Shishakli, but less than four years later, the Syrian state, committed an act of political ‘harakiri’ and united with Egypt, only to secede after less than four years. The new parliament elected afterwards was dissolved when the Ba’ath party took over in March 1963.

Second, in each of these elections, the largest group of delegates were independents, a code word for tribal leaders, local strongmen of one kind or another, as well as representatives of various sectarian groups – in short, not people who stand for the interests of  the nation as a whole.’

“The unfolding Syrian civil war as of March 2011 clearly indicates that where there is no viable, legitimate political community, force alone is not enough to create one.” – Josef Olmert

Third, there were political parties represented, but two of them, the National Party and the People’s Party, were basically loose coalitions of notables from Damascus and Aleppo, respectively. So, we are left with the Ba’ath Party which garnered, at the height of its popularity a mere 15 percent of the seats in the parliament elected in 1954.

The inevitable conclusion is that elections on their own, could not provide a solid, stable basis for a Syrian political community standing on its own feet. What was missing was a civic society, a genuine sense of national solidarity, a binding raison d’etre enough to bring together a myriad of disparate ethnic and religious communities under one unified political system.   The entire history of Syria is a search for common identity which could be shared by the diverse population and function effectively enough as a state.

Pan-Syrianism espoused by Antun Sa’ade and his  Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Arab  Nationalism à la – Adib Shishakli and his Arab Liberation Movement, the pan-Arab nationalism of the historic Ba’ath Party of Aflaq, Bitar and Arsuzi, and the most recent experiment, that of Ba’athism-Alawism-Assadism, lasting for four decades, all failed to create a stable political community. On its surface, the House of Assad seemed to be a success story, but in reality the stability in Syria under the Assads lacked real popular legitimacy, and the very survivability of the regime depended on the use of brute force with a view to cow an entire population.

The unfolding Syrian civil war as of March 2011 clearly indicates that where there is no viable, legitimate political community, force alone is not enough to create one.

Worse yet, the current conflict leads Syria into a chaotic existence, with a society breaking up along its ethnic/sectarian and regional components, a central government in control of an ever dwindling portion of the state’s territory, and a military which, rather then being a national army, functions as a force in the service of the interests of the Alawite community, and in it, the Assad clan, which is just one clan in one of the four large Alawite tribal coalitions.

A member of the Free Syrian Army holds up a poster of former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad (bottom), whose defaced picture is seen hanging on a garbage bin in Aleppo, October, 17, 2012 (Reuters).

At the same time, the Syrian opposition, whether the civilian wing, under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council (SNC) or the Free Syrian Army, is also split along sectarian, regional and ideological lines, but also between the ‘’internal’’ (Dahl), the suffering people inside Syria, and the ‘’external’’ (Harij), the political exiles whose real influence in Syria itself is very limited, if not outright non-existent.

Syria’s society is in an advanced stage of atomization, breaking up in a way that will make the task of re-establishing one unified political community very difficult, perhaps virtually impossible.

Is it therefore a lost case? Can Syria rebound and be a coherent state again? The answer, with caveats, is yes. One can look at neighboring Lebanon, and its way out of the devastating civil war and foreign interventions of 1975-1990. Lebanon is functioning, though barely, and while it maintains political institutions, it still lacks a sense of common purpose, a civic society without which no real democracy can last for too long. But then again, Lebanon has at least one asset, which can provide a possible model for a renovated, post-Assad Syria, namely the sectarian-based electoral system, which ensures representation for all the various religious communities.   In the case of Syria, another element should be injected – regionalism, i.e. ensuring that the areas known historically as the ‘’compact minority territories’’ – those of the Druze, Alawites and Kurds – will have their measure of home rule as part of a loosely-unified political system.

This system will need some kind of leading ideological motivation, and that is bound to be that of the Islamists, more precisely, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, as there is no more any other ideological movement that can compete with the natural legitimacy and popularity of the Islamists.

This is the Syria that we are discussing – a Syria in which the Islamists will be dominant in the Sunni-based areas, but not in the minority-controlled ones. But all this is easier said than done. Amid the continuing bloodshed it may even look a distant political fantasy, and it may very well be one, but internal conflicts, even with that level of ferocity, tend to end at some point.

And all those interested in having, somewhere down the road, a functioning and relatively stable Syria, should look now for the future formula of governance there. Surely, it will not come from Bashar al-Assad and his notion of the ballot box.

This post has been authored exclusively for Middle East Voices.

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Josef Olmert

Josef Olmert is a Middle East scholar, former peace negotiator and published author. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics in Middle East history and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina.

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