The world was treated to yet another media appearance Monday by the president of Syria, who mentioned his personal struggle over whether to seek another term as head of state.
In recent months, a barrage of media appearances by Bashar Assad has allowed the Syrian president to take the lead role in a relentless propaganda campaign. Naturally, all sides in a military conflict engage in such tactics – our forces are making progress, and the enemy is incurring losses.
But Assad is also locked in a political conflict, both at home and abroad. During the interview, which as usual was conducted with a friendly media outlet, Assad played coy as he talked about his “re-election” chances. On the one hand, stating a desire to stand for another term was a clear attempt by Assad to throw the opposition into disarray as preparations are ramped up for the Geneva II peace conference. Opposition figures are loudly demanding guarantees that Assad’s exit be part of the Geneva II process, and a declaration of an intent to run again is the logical way to sow confusion.
But Assad’s media strategy is not a particularly sophisticated one. The first question that comes to mind is how to hold elections next year. Do the Syrian authorities have any notion of how they could pull off such an achievement, with much of the country’s territory either out of their control, or under fire from rebel groups? Do the authorities intend to open their friendly embassies abroad to receive the votes of several million displaced Syrians? The entire question of elections with the current regime overseeing them is a red herring; the latest Syrian Constitution, enacted last year, has a ready-made solution for any turbulent situation on the ground. Article 78 says that if elections cannot be held, then the current president remains in power until further notice.
It doesn’t require a lot effort to imagine how Syrian officials will begin shifting their rhetoric over the coming months – from “things are going our way” to “it has become impossible to hold an election because of the difficult situation on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the opposition has its own problems. The National Coalition has stuck firmly to its condition that Assad must go, but it is hamstrung by its lack of control over rebel forces on the ground. But its condition is based on the fact that Geneva II means that there was a Geneva I – and that meeting produced a document that talked about an executive transitional authority with full powers – this means power cannot be shared with Assad, remaining on in some official capacity.
In the end, both sides are setting down their conditions and counter-conditions in a way that suggests they, and their backers, are content to let events on the ground settle things. But have all of these parties fully considered what a prolonged conflict will mean for the future of Syria and the region?