by Rafael Medoff
Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal for elections under Syrian dictator Bashar Assad represents a startling reversal of the declared U.S. policy that “Assad must go.” And like all elections held under the thumb of totalitarian regimes, such a race would not advance democracy or freedom.
Kerry made the proposal during a meeting last week with Syrian opposition figures, one of whom tape-recorded the discussion without Kerry’s knowledge. Although President Obama has repeatedly said Assad must give up power, Kerry urged the Syrian opposition to compete in elections with Assad. The tape was leaked to the New York Times; an embarrassed Kerry has declined to comment.
Farcical elections are a time-honored tradition in Syria under the Assad family. After Bashar’s father, Hafez, seized power in 1970, he periodically held one-man “elections” in which he received 99% of the vote.
Like father, like son: after Hafez passed away in 2000, Bashar was the only candidate in the race to succeed him. He captured 97.2% of the vote. Seven years later, he staged another one-man election, this time winning 97.6%. Interior Minister Bassam Majeed said “this great consensus shows the political maturity of Syria and the brilliance of our democracy and multi-party system.”
Two years ago, Assad staged another presidential race, this time including two government-approved competitors. Assad won 88.7% of the vote; his closest rival, Hassan al-Nouri, received 4.3%.
Guess who denounced Bashar Assad’s multi-candidate race in 2014: Secretary Kerry. He called the Syrian election “meaningless” and “a great big zero.” Why Kerry thinks a new Syrian election under Assad would be any more meaningful than the last one is a mystery. Considering how many of Assad’s opponents have been murdered or exiled; it’s hard to imagine that the results of a new election could accurately represent the will of the Syrian people.
One should always be cautious about comparing current leaders or events to the Nazis or the Holocaust. But the Syrian elections issue raises questions that may warrant a Hitler analogy.
Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party won a plurality of 33% in the November 1932 election which resulted in the coalition bargaining that brought Hitler to power in January. To consolidate and legitimize his rule, Hitler called for new elections on March 5.
In the weeks prior to the election, Hitler pulled out all stops (and, one may presume, so would Bashar Assad). By burning down the Reichstag and blaming it on the Communists, William L. Shirer noted in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “with one stroke Hitler was able not only to legally gag his opponents ad arrest them at his will but, by making the trumped-up Communist threat ‘official, ‘ as it were, to throw millions of the middle class and the peasantry into a frenzy of fear that unless they voted for National Socialism at the elections a week hence, the Bolsheviks might take over.”
The election campaign was marked by mass arrests of Communists and Socialists, the shutdown of opposition papers, and violent assaults by storm troopers on meetings of non-Nazi parties. Despite the nationwide campaign of violence and intimidation, Hitler still failed to reach a majority, winning 43.9% of the vote. By the time parliamentary elections were staged, in November 1933, Hitler had complete power and all opposition parties had been outlawed. The Nazis won 92.2% of the votes. They increased their total to 99.9% in the March 1936 elections.
According to United Nations estimates, more than 400,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war –about 11% of the population– and nearly five million have fled the country. Which is another way of saying that many of Assad’s opponents would not be around to vote. Not to mention the fact that he would use every weapon at his disposal to tilt the election results in his favor, and that his allies, Iran and Russia, surely would find ways to help him. One can understand why the Syrian opposition figures who met with Kerry were “astonished” to hear him talking about elections under Assad, according to the Times.
From the farcical U.S. training of 60 Syrian rebels, to the toothless “red line” threat that went unfulfilled, to the renewed Syrian chemical weapons attacks years after they supposedly gave up their chemical weapons, the Obama administration’s Syria policy has gone from farce to tragedy, and now back to farce. Which means that more tragedy is in the offing.