FPI Fact Sheet: As Assad Holds “Election,” Syria’s Crisis Worsens

June 3, 2014

By FPI Senior Policy Analyst Patrick Christy & Policy Director Robert Zarate

As Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad holds a controversial presidential election today in regime-controlled parts of the country, senior U.S. officials have condemned the vote as a “farce.”  Regardless of the election’s outcome, the conflict in Syria is likely to worsen.
I. Syrian Elections are Neither Free nor Fair under Assad
The United States has criticized the “illegitimacy” of the June 3rd presidential election.  As the Washington Post reported on June 3rd:  “The United States has repeatedly dismissed the presidential election taking place Tuesday as a ‘parody’ because the outcome is guaranteed by rules written by the Assad regime.  There are no serious contenders challenging Assad’s bid to be reelected for a third seven-year term in office, there will be no independent observers, and many parts of the country are either controlled by rebels or engulfed in fighting.”

  • The United States has publicly called Assad’s presidential election a “farce.”  As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on June 2nd:  “[W]e have been clear that this election is a farce.  Voting opened May 28th, so just a couple of days ago for Syrian ex-pats, and the election will conclude tomorrow in Syria.  The democratic elections generally offer an opportunity for people in a free society to be consulted and to play an important role in choosing their leaders.  Such a process is inconceivable in Syria today, where the regime has crushed political dissent and nearly half the population is displaced by war, including millions scattered outside of the country in refugee camps and host communities.  Further, the Syrian parliament adopted this year a law restricting candidacy to individuals who’ve lived in Syria for the past 10 years, thereby preventing exiled opposition figures from running....  So we’ve been clear that this election flows from a family legacy of brutal dictatorship, and also clear we won’t recognize the outcome.”
  • Assad won previous sham referendums with more than 90 percent of the vote.  The Associated Press reported on March 29th: “Until now, Bashar Assad has been elected by referendums in which he was the only candidate and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.  Each time, he won with more than 90 percent of the vote” (emphasis added).

The Assad regime prevented opposition candidates from running for the presidency.  The New York Times reported on April 21st: “The Constitution adopted in 2012 requires that any candidate have the written support of at least 35 members of Parliament, for example—probably unattainable for anyone who opposes the government.  And a recent law disqualifies any candidate who has lived outside Syria in the past 10 years or who holds citizenship in any other nation, effectively excluding all members of the Syrian National Coalition, the internationally recognized opposition group.”

  • Syria’s Supreme Constitutional Court approved only two pro-regime candidates to run against Assad.  The Los Angeles Times reported on May 10th: “There’s little mystery about the likely winner of the presidential election scheduled for June 3.  On Saturday, authorities formally approved three candidates, Assad and a pair of relatively unknown politicians who are both government stalwarts, Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and Hassan Abdullah Nouri.”
  • Both candidates support Assad’s military campaign against the Syrian people.  Reuters reported on May 17th:  “Hassan al-Nouri said there was no difference between the three candidates over military strategy against Syrian rebels and their foreign Sunni Muslim backers in the ongoing conflict.  ‘Our enemy is still the same enemy. We are all against terrorism,’ Nouri told Reuters in an interview less than three weeks before an election which authorities portray as a landmark for democracy and the West has dismissed as a sham.”

The Assad regime restricted voting to government-controlled areas of the country.  The Associated Press reported on May 26th:  “President Bashar Assad is all but guaranteed a victory as opposition groups are boycotting the vote and balloting will only be held in government-controlled areas of the fragmented country, where rebels hold vast territory and where entire blocks have been destroyed and emptied of their original inhabitants because of the fighting.”

  • The Assad regime has excluded most refugees from voting.  Reuters reported on May 27th: “Voting begins on Wednesday for Syrians outside the country, who are allowed to cast ballots at the embassy—as long as they have not left the country illegally, bypassing official routes, as many refugees have.”

II. Assad’s Foreign Enablers

Russia and Iran actively support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.  Secretary of State John Kerry said on February 17th:  “I regret to say [Assad’s forces] are doing [continuing to drop barrel bombs on their own people] with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah, and from Russia.  Russia needs to be a part of the solution and not be contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem.”

Iran has provided the Assad regime with financial assistance, military training, and weapons since the conflict began.  The Washington Post reported on June 3rd:  “Iran vowed early in the conflict that it would not permit Assad to fall, and it has so far delivered on its word, pumping billions of dollars into the Syrian economy and providing weapons and training to loyalist forces.  Shiite militias from Iraq, funded and trained by Iran, have provided much-needed manpower to supplement weary government forces.  Iran also backs the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, which played a crucial role in turning back Syrian rebel advances over the past year.”

  • Iran has created paramilitary groups on the ground in Syria.  The Los Angeles Times reported on June 1st:  “The Iranian government has been instrumental in the creation and support of paramilitary Shiite groups operating in Syria, such as the Iraqi Abu Fadhl Al-Abbass brigade.  It is a major backer of the Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah.”
  • Iran is reportedly recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight on the ground in Syria.  The Wall Street Journal reported on May 22nd:  “Iran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering $500 a month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime beat back rebel forces, according to Afghans and a Western official.”

Abdollah Eskandari, a retired senior commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was reportedly killed in Syria in late May 2014.  The Los Angeles Times reported on June 1st:  “A prominent Iranian military figure has been killed while fighting in Syria, according to both Syrian opposition and Iranian government sources, adding to mounting evidence of Tehran’s military assistance to Syrian President Bashar Assad,” adding:  “Eskandari’s death brings the number of Iranian officers killed in Syria to 60, according to Syrian opposition sources.”

  • Iran reportedly increased the number of military specialists to Syria in early 2014.  As Reuters reported on February 21st:  “These include senior commanders from the elite Quds Force, the external and secretive arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as IRGC members. Their function is not to fight, but to direct and train Syrian forces and to assist in the gathering of intelligence, according to sources in Iran and outside.”

Russia increased the “quantity and the quality of weapons” it provided to the Assad regime in early 2014.  Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson said on March 26th:  “[W]e have seen an increase in both the quantity and the quality of weapons Russia has provided to the Syrian regime in recent months.  The stability that Russia seeks in Syria will not be achieved by providing planes, tanks, bombs, and guns for use against the Syrian people.  We continue to review all options for changing President Putin’s calculus away from Russia’s support for the Assad regime.”

  • Moscow reportedly gave advanced conventional weapons to the Assad regime.  As Reuters reported on January 17th:  “In recent weeks Russia has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria, including armored vehicles, drones and guided bombs, boosting President Bashar al-Assad just as rebel infighting has weakened the insurgency against him, sources with knowledge of the deliveries say.”

Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution in May 2014 that would have referred Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes.  The UN’s News Center reported on May 22nd:  “Despite repeated appeals by senior United Nations officials for accountability for crimes being committed in Syria, the Security Council was unable today to adopt a resolution that would have referred the situation in the war-torn nation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), due to vetoes by permanent members Russia and China.”

  • Russia has repeatedly shielded Assad at the United Nations.  The Associated Press reported May 22nd:  “This is the fourth time Russia and China have used their veto power as permanent council members to deflect action against the government of President Bashar Assad.  The 13 other council members voted in favor of the resolution.”

III. Assad’s Use of Chemical Weapons
The Assad regime will likely miss the international community’s June 30th deadline to eliminate its declared chemical weapons stockpile.  The New York Times reported on May 28th: “In a May 23 letter to the Security Council obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that roughly 8 percent of the stockpile remained in Syria, awaiting shipment for destruction abroad.  Mr. Ban also said that one of Syria’s 12 storage facilities had yet to be closed, and that only five of 18 production facilities had been closed.”

  • On September 27, 2013, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution (2118) requiring the scheduled destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and production facilities.  A November 2013 decision by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is implementing the U.S.-Russian framework for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons, required the Assad regime to remove all declared chemicals by February 2014. 
  • The Assad regime has repeatedly missed international deadlines for getting rid of its chemical weapons stockpile.  As the Associated Press reported on March 6th:  “The government missed a Dec. 31 deadline to remove the most dangerous chemicals in its stockpile from the war-torn country and a Feb. 5 deadline to give up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.  The Assad regime cited security concerns and the lack of some equipment but says it remains fully committed to the process.”

Evidence suggests the Assad regime used chlorine gas during attacks in 2014.  As Human Rights Watch reported on May 13th: “Evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014, Human Rights Watch said today.  These attacks used an industrial chemical as a weapon, an act banned by the international treaty prohibiting chemical weapons that Syria joined in October 2013. The Syrian government is the only party to the conflict with helicopters and other aircraft.”

  • In May 2014, France said that Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons involving chlorine on 14 occasions.  As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on May 13th:  “We have at least 14 indications that show us that, in the past recent weeks again, chemical weapons in a smaller scale have been used, in particular chlorine.”
  • The United States has said the use of chlorine as a weapon would violate terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  As Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 15th: “Chlorine is not listed on the list of prohibited items by itself freestanding under the Chemical Weapons Convention.  But chlorine, when used and mixed in a way that is used as a chemical weapon in the conduct of war, is against the chemical weapons treaty.  And I have seen evidence, I don’t know how verified it is—it’s not verified yet—it’s hasn’t been confirmed, but I’ve seen the raw data that suggests there may have been, as France has suggested, a number of instances in which chlorine has been used in the conduct of war.  And if it has, and if it could be proven, then that would be against the agreements of the chemical weapons treaty and against the weapons convention that Syria has signed up to.”

In August 2013, the U.S. Government assessed “with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.”  The assessment added:  “A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.”

  • A December 2013 report by the United Nations asserted chemical weapons were used in Syria on five occasions.  As The New York Times reported on December 12, 2013: “Chemical weapons were used repeatedly in the Syria conflict this year, not only in a well-documented Aug. 21 attack near Damascus but also in four other instances, including two subsequent attacks that targeted soldiers, the United Nations said in a report released Thursday.”

IV. Syria’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that over 160,000 people have died since the Syria conflict began in March 2011.  The United Nations estimates the ongoing conflict has displaced more than 6.8 million people within Syria (more than the population of Tennessee), while over 2.75 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighboring countries.

  • Jordan, a major non-NATO ally, is home to over 599,000 refugees, equivalent to roughly 10 percent of the country’s population.  The growing refugee crisis is causing economic difficulties with mounting costs totaling nearly $1.7 billion.
  • Lebanon is now home to over 1 million refugees, nearly a quarter of the country’s population.
  • Turkey, a NATO ally, is now home to over 761,000 refugees.

UNICEF reports that “since March 2013, the number of children affected by the crisis has more than doubled from 2.3 million to more than 5.5 million.”  The March 2014 UNICEF report added:  “Child casualty rates are the highest recorded in any recent conflict in the region: while death and injury rates are difficult to measure, the UN conservatively estimates that at least 10,000 children have been killed.  The real number is likely to be even higher.”

  • The UNICEF report added: “One in 10 children—over 1.2 million—have fled the country to become refugees in neighboring countries.  And these numbers are rising every day.  By the end of January 2014, 37,498 Syrian children had been born as refugees.”

The United Nations reported in February 2014 that the Assad regime has committed “gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of murder, hostage-taking, torture, rape and sexual violence, recruiting and using children in hostilities and targeting civilians in sniper attacks.”  The U.N.’s Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic added:  “Government forces and pro-government militia continue to conduct widespread attacks on civilians, systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity.”

  • Regime forces have even dropped “barrel bombs” from helicopters to indiscriminately terrorize and kill Syrian people.  The Washington Post reported in December 2013: “The barrel bombs are oil drums packed with explosives, nails and other shrapnel.  They are dropped by helicopters and are far simpler than the chemical weapons that the United States and other Western powers are trying to ferry out of the country.  But they are also imprecise, killing rebel forces and civilians alike, and the fear they provoke is almost as intense, activists and rebel fighters say.”

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