BEIRUT: Syria’s divided rebels and their foreign backers have been watching in disbelief as the regime gears up for an election to give Bashar Assad another presidential mandate despite their uprising.
The vote, which the Damascus regime can hold only in territory it controls and embassies abroad, signals confidence by Assad and his allies that they will win the war.
“Two years ago, we used to think it was impossible the regime would last long enough to hold the 2014 election. I just can’t believe it’s going to happen,” sighed Thaer, an activist from Homs, once known as “the capital of the revolution.”
“When the revolution began, we were much stronger, the movement was peaceful and massive, and our hopes were high,” he told AFP.
Now, he says, the election is a new signal that Syria’s revolt has escalated into a proxy war “in which the Syrian people are paying the highest price.”
A rebel commander in Damascus province agreed.
He said the reason the regime is able to hold its vote is because of the endemic division among the opposition, a lack of leadership and a failure by the international community to make good its promises to back the revolt.
“The international community is not merely paralyzed ... The truth is it doesn’t actually want to help,” said Selim Hejazi, echoing the opposition’s belief that while Assad has all the help he needs, the so-called Friends of Syria who back the revolt have been more self-interested.
Hejazi also cited “the continuous disorganization and factionalism among the ranks of the armed opposition [as] burdens to the revolution.”
While Assad has received huge amounts of military, financial and economic assistance from Russia and Iran, support for the rebels from backers in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West has been at best chaotic. Even though the opposition has seized significant swathes of territory, the regime still massively outguns the rebels with its regular army, air force, growing paramilitary force and elite fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The West, especially the United States, has so far held back from providing much military assistance, citing fears that weapons would fall into the hands of jihadists.
According to Samir Nashar, a veteran anti-Assad dissident and member of the opposition National Coalition, the West’s fears have kept the opposition weak.
“The West, especially the United States, seem to focus on managing the Syrian conflict – not on effectively supporting the opposition,” Nashar told AFP by phone from Turkey.
Syria expert Noah Bonsey, who works with the International Crisis Group, agreed.
“Western allies have offered words that raise rebel expectations, but the limited material support they provide is insufficient to effectively empower the moderate elements they ostensibly back,” Bonsey said.
Meanwhile, support for the regime from its allies has come in the form of financing, weaponry and political clout.
On the ground, the regime has scored a string of advances in recent months, steadily raising the heat as the June 3election day edges closer.
In the past few weeks, it has reclaimed the Old City of Homs and broken the rebel siege of Aleppo central prison.
Opponents see the advances as part of Assad’s electoral campaign and a stark indicator that there is no political solution in sight, with the regime signaling that it intends to win the war militarily.
Opposition and regime representatives met earlier this year in Switzerland for talks sponsored by the United States and Russia.
The opposition insisted that Assad be excluded from any future power-sharing formula, while the regime refused to accept any preconditions. The talks ended in stalemate.
With more than 160,000 killed and nearly half of the country’s total population displaced, the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that has struck Syria also “makes people feel the whole world is conspiring against them,” said Nashar.
Thaer, the activist from Homs, said that even though he considers the election a “farce ... it sadly means the war will continue, and the bloodshed will continue.”