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FLASH ALERT: VOTER INTIMIDATION AND ELECTORAL VIOLENCE LEADING UP TO THE SYRIAN ELECTIONS

May 2021 | CTG CENTCOM Team



The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT to Syrian electors and international watchdogs, including all relevant government agencies, military forces, diplomatic officials, and industries and economies invested with these countries. The current CTG threat matrix indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that Syrian voters will experience voter abuse tactics including but not limited to voter intimidation, ballot suppression and violence at polling stations. This assessment is based on international as well as local sources but also on the comparison with past electoral periods.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad[1]


Syria’s next presidential elections, scheduled to begin on May 26, 2021, will mark the second elections to take place since the country entered a civil war, more than ten years ago. Despite being the incumbent, current president Bashar al-Assad is seeking an additional mandate, in breach of the 2015 UN resolution that only permitted elections to be held after the drafting of a new constitution allowing for a more free and competitive vote. The requirement for candidates to be backed by 35 members of parliament gives power to the ruling National Progressive Front, which dominates the assembly, and the requirement to have lived continuously in Syria for the past 10 years excludes opposition figures in exile.[2] The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) is calling for a boycott of the elections, which are deemed illegitimate not only due to the disregard for the UN’s resolution but also due to al-Assad’s war crimes. Since Assad was elected to his last 7-year term in 2014, nearly 48,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the conflict, including more than 8,000 children. More than 44,000 are still forcibly disappeared, according to SNHR, which shares its data with the UN.[3]


In this highly undemocratic context, CTG assesses that the government in place will employ unlawful, if not violent methods to skew the election in its favor. In the most extreme of scenarios, the regime will assuredly carry out targeted killings of opponents calling for a different outcome. In 2014, the body of 13 year old Hamza al-Khatib was returned to his family’s home after he was arrested in an anti-government protest.[4] This particular tactic of voter intimidation will be especially dangerous if any protests are carried out. The government is known to crack down on protests, make arrests in large swaths, or simply fire live rounds into crowds, as was made evident by the shooting of 15 activists at the Omari mosque in 2011.[5]


There is also a threat of violence from rebel groups trying to interfere with the election. In 2014, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, the Sham Corps, the Army of Mujahedeen, and the Islamic Front vowed to disrupt the elections in any way possible, including bombing and shelling polling stations and government-controlled areas.[6] During the last election, a statement issued by the terrorist groups listed above said they would not attack voters but warned people to stay at home "in case the Syrian government did.”[7] By presenting themselves as a safer, less threatening alternative to the Syrian government, these terrorist groups may become a legitimate political force in opposition to the Syrian government. If the civil war and political instability in Syria prevail and the government continues to ignore the UN resolution, these terrorist groups may gain enough political support to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. In the past, ISIS has demonstrated relative success in offering alternative governance to al-Assad. Notwithstanding the environment of fear and oppression within the ISIS caliphate, for a short time it nevertheless offered a level of governance and stability absent in government controlled areas. The likelihood of al-Assad’s electoral victory is almost certain and this elevates the risk of future and long-term destabilization and competition for power not by ballot boxes but through bullets, bombs and claims of territory.


Along with the Syrian government and rebel groups, foreign entities in opposition to Bashar al-Assad, who is currently set up to win again, also pose a threat. On May 20, 2021, groups of angry Lebanese individuals attacked Syrian expatriates and refugees who were heading to the Syrian embassy in Beirut to vote.[8] Scattered mobs around the Beirut region, mostly from the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces group, have intercepted cars and buses plastered with pictures of al-Assad and carrying Syrian voters at intersections. The attackers pelted them with rocks and smashed windows with sticks; in one attack, a Lebanese driver ran over a group of Syrians, hitting one man.[9] If Bashar al-Assad wins the election, the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces group may retaliate and direct their resentment towards Syrian expatriates and refugees; they may continue to perpetrate the violence that has been occuring in Beirut during this past week or turn to more extreme methods to express their anger with regards to the election results.


A trend that has been emboldened since the last election is the increase in targeted killings of policemen, local administrators, and former rebels in the province of Daraa by ISIS fighters whose level of commitment to the group varies. Some commit the killings to directly advance the cause of ISIS in Syria while some who are more rogue kill with more personal or other motivation. This tactic will play a big role in creating a climate of fear, undermining the safety of voters as well as their perception of polling stations as safe places. There is a medium chance that everyday voters are targeted but a much higher chance that higher profile personalities are targeted as they cast their vote. The threat of targeted hits may materialize during the election insofar that assassins will know the whereabouts of polling stations and will be able to anticipate the movement of ballots, should they wish to derail the election by performing a hit on a ballot convoy. Polling and counting stations will also house local officials who will be atop the lists of potential targets.


Voter intimidation aside, al-Assad’s regime already benefits from the fundamental territorial and societal divisions within Syria. For example, the Idlib governorate has been essentially broken off from the rest of the territory. This implies that, with the 30 percent of the territory it constitutes, an estimated seven million will not be taking part in the election, siphoning off potential votes against the incumbent. In addition, the 2012 constitution passed by al-Assad prohibits candidates who have not lived the last ten years in Syria to take part in the election. The convenience of this policy in light of the exiling of political opponents and the ongoing civil war allows Assad to run practically unopposed.


CONCLUSION


CTG assesses that the current threat of voter intimidation is HIGH as Syria enters its new election phase and as the conflict continues to tear the country apart. Our analysis indicates that increased violence against local administrators and higher profile individuals from the public, private, and military sectors is HIGH given the increase in targeted killings in the key Daraa province south of Damascus leading up to the election. Additionally, the probability of attacks targeting civilians remains MEDIUM TO HIGH. There is a HIGH probability that the incumbent Syrian government will engage in voter intimidation such as ballot suppression from the Idlib province, opponent arrests during meetings and protests, imprisonment, torture and execution. International organizations on the ground are recommended to maintain vigilance and to report illegal behavior. Bashar al-Assad’s foreseeable victory would likely fuel the ongoing violence, political instability, and economic crisis in Syria. Political opposition in Syria will likely continue to face exile or illegitimate election regulations, disabling opposition figures from forming a united front or providing the international community with a credible alternative to Assad. The armed opposition has become increasingly fractured as the civil war has evolved, and Assad will likely continue to use the rise of jihadist groups to cast himself as a rampart against terrorism. Our analysis of al-Assad’s predictable victory indicates that retaliatory violence from terrorist groups and suppressive military violence will pose a HIGH threat to Syrian civilians, especially those residing in Idlib, Daraa, and Damascus.



If any individuals are interested in learning more about security measures to protect their facilities and personnel, please contact The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) by Telephone 202-643-248 or email info@counterterrorismgroup.com

[1] “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” by Jillian C. York licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Western countries, activists slam Syria’s upcoming election, Al Jazeera, April 2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/21/syrian-presidential-elections-neither-free-nor-fair-activists

[3]At Least 98,000 Forcibly Disappeared Persons in Syria Since March 2011, SNHR, August 2019 https://sn4hr.org/blog/2019/08/31/54185/

[4] The choice in Syria's election: vote for Assad or else …, The Guardian, June 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/02/syria-election-vote-for-assad-or-else

[5] Syrian regime launches crackdown by shooting 15 activists dead, The Guardian, March 2011

[6] Syrians flee as rebels vow to wreck poll, The Times, June 2014 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/syrians-flee-as-rebels-vow-to-wreck-poll-8s9jg9rjwcn

[7] Rebels shell Aleppo as Syria votes, Al-Monitor, June 2014 https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2014/06/syria-aleppo-elections-rebels-strike-shell-assad.html

[8] Lebanese attack Syrian voters in sign of growing resentment, AP News, May 2021 https://apnews.com/article/beirut-syria-lebanon-middle-east-e6259eba7019320578bd587ad1f8f341

[9] Ibid

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