Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Opposition should speak up for UN organised elections in Syria

In Brief: Those that think they could secure the votes of the Syrian people should be calling for UN organised elections.

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures. Article 21 (3) Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

You would have to be living in some kind of bubble with your emotions turned off to totally dismiss the plea for international armed intervention in Syria.

The horrendous misery and suffering the Assad regime has coldly and systematically inflicted on men, women and children is sickening. That the regime does this with total impunity so it can maintain its corrupt and lavish lifestyle only adds to those screaming for such intervention.

I’m however not going to make the case for such military action here; many have already lobbied for different forms of armed intervention, often in a very short sighted, ill thought through and hawkish manner which would likely do more harm than good to civilians and the stability of Syria and the region. The fact that the risks and costs of armed intervention are supremely high really does need to be more widely understood and acknowledged.

Instead, I want to take a longer and more ambitious view in light of renewed talk of a political process initiated by the US and Russia.

Political solutions

The Geneva communique or maybe a soon to be updated version of it still remains the preferred option by many countries in the international community to resolve the crisis in Syria. There are many problems with this initiative too numerous to detail here. This is true of many such proposals though depending on how hard and uncompromising your position is.

A key problem for those pressing for a genuine political solution and against a military solution (outside the UN system) is that the senior leadership of the Syrian government (the regime) do not appear to want a ceasefire to enable a credible and inclusive dialogue. They also don’t appear to want credible elections which would be one of the desired outcomes of an inclusive dialogue. And Assad himself has rejected immunity deals in the past.

However have all attempts to find innovative solutions to address these points and to resolve the conflict been explored yet? Have all attempts to reach out to Syrian people who support the government or the Ba’ath party or are neither with the government or the mainstream opposition been attempted yet? Not by a long way. Risk analysis paralysis, budget constraints, lack of imagination, hardening positions and fatigue are major factors in this lack of effective and innovative action.

However if not now, maybe in ten years when tens of thousands of lives have been lost, a political resolution will still be needed which includes a milestone of credible elections inside Syria. I don’t believe Assad or any of his backers think he himself could take a party to victory in a UN organised election – however ceasefires, a credible election and a long term and well resourced UN stabilisation mission seems to be one of the smarter proposals to turn Syria away from the abyss of a failed state with increasingly bloody sectarian killings and provocations and towards a process leading to a cycle of elections which sees the country develop into a parliamentary democracy.

I should also say I don’t believe any one political group within the opposition could win an election outright so some level of coalition government would seem inevitable.

How do we get there when so many are dead against even having a process of negotiation though? I suggest we start with firstly getting a commitment from all parties that they do actually support UN organised elections as opposed to firstly seeking their commitment to dialogue or a ceasefire. These latter two factors, dialogue and ceasefire, have been stumbling blocks and the crucial point, that of a Syria where attaining power peacefully through credible elections is the new norm, has been lost from the mainstream political and media narrative which is locked into a downward spiral of war, brutality and helplessness.

Credible Elections

The often repeated mantra of “let the Syrian people decide” in my mind means credible elections not the imposition of a new, unelected “government”. It is quite clear that elections organised by the Syrian state alone would not be seen as credible. Instead it seems Syrian elections for a new parliamentary system should be planned, organised, administered and monitored by the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division (EAD) at the UNs Department of Political Affairs.

I’m not hugely convinced a transitional government with elements of the current government and elements of various opposition groups is a realistic proposition given the level of distrust between the “sides”. It seems to be yet another formulation, like “the opposition should unite” which seems destined to fail. Why can’t the competing parties agree to differ and instead go about organising their party machinery and get ready for campaigning? Let the people decide.

Anyway, as for UN organised elections there are also some technicalities here. Syria as a member state of the UN would need to request the UNs EAD.  The UN itself says “Requests from political parties, civil society or other entities are not considered.”  That of course does not mean civil society, “other entities” and Syrian opposition groups can not be making a loud noise about the need for elections. If they are confident they can secure a large proportion of the vote what is stopping them? Likewise, the Ba’ath party, if confident of its support should not be shy of such elections. Russia and Iran should also be making these calls making it clear to the regime that a large proportion of the Syrian people do not trust the government to organise and administer national elections in Syria.

I would also suggest it should not be beyond the UNs Department of Political Affairs to draft a request for electoral assistance for the Syrian authorities. In fact I think this would be a sensible course of action to speed up this process.

UN electoral assistance could also happen at the request of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly but this would still need the Syrian authority’s agreement. I’ve spoken to Syrian supporters of the Ba’ath party who all claim their party has the support to win an election in Syria...so surely they should also be speaking loudly in favour of such a process.

Local Ceasefires

Obviously conducting a national election during an armed conflict would not be viable. I’d also suggest a nation wide ceasefire across Syria at the beginning of a political process is also not viable. Better that ceasefires are approached at a local level where the cessation of armed conflict is coupled with an injection of humanitarian assistance but also political assistance via a UN peacekeeping and stabilization mission. This would help with local government and the provision of services, rule of law, disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating armed group members and also reforming the security sector. This means a national stability plan implemented locally and gradually. The incentive for the local population to engage such an initiative would be the return of stability, safety and a functioning local government. That this could happen while there is still brutal armed conflict in other parts of the country doesn't mean it should not be attempted and incentives offered by the international community.

UN Forces

Now certainly a UN presence would be needed on the ground beyond political, humanitarian and technical assistance. Peacekeepers would surely be needed to ensure local and more than likely fragile ceasefires held. Their mandate should probably be under review every month to ensure it is fit for purpose. Again this would be part of a national stability plan but implemented locally and gradually.

All these stages would require a UN Security Council resolution.

What next?

Let’s say elections get planned for the second quarter of 2014 – this gives Syrians and the international community a year to replicate the local ceasefire model across the country in time for national parliamentary elections. During that time the architecture for such a process would be being funded and built.

I’ll not get into which parties would be running in an election and what could be in their manifestos but it would seem wrong to exclude any current parties (the Ba’ath party for instance). I also suspect many new parties would form out of the various Syrian opposition groupings given the huge ideological differences.

The UN presence would certainly still be needed in the country long after the first election through to the next set of elections until the architecture of a new system of government, financial sector and civil society was self sufficient. Gradually the stabilisation presence could be withdrawn in the same way it was implemented – locally and gradually based on clear assessments and criteria. We could be talking a 20 year process here taking in 4 or 5 election cycles all organised by the UN with gradually increasing input from new Syrian governance structures.


Syria is blighted by spoilers – there are too many to mention whether pro or anti regime, whether in the international community, in think tanks, in the media, in neighbouring countries. There are also multiple questions remaining regarding what happens to those who have committed or commissioned grave violations of international law. It seems inconceivable that Assad and senior “security” officials and ministers could be involved in such a political process – who other than Russia, Iran and other senior figures in the Syrian government could safely propose this to Assad et al though? I can’t answer this here but I do believe Iran should be involved (maybe indirectly) in the dialogue in order to bring about a road map towards elections in Syria.

Problems with this

A lot of the initiatives I have mentioned above may not happen. This is a galactic understatement given the inter-dependencies of each point in the process, not to mention the spoilers and cynics seeking to spread the conflict or at the very least, not do anything to resolve it. I've also not even touched on some of the jihadi armed groups who could be supreme spoilers and whether their representatives should be involved in talks. I think maybe they could be in an indirect way similar to Iran. Maybe it is better to try and engage these groups now before it is too late? However, they and others using force now may not wish to be engaged and may not be open to reasonable and rational dialogue, local ceasefires or elections – I’m very aware of this problem.

An alternative

Given all the pitfalls and spoilers in the way of getting to credible elections, a UN peace enforcement mission may be needed. This would also need the authorization of the UN Security Council. I mention this largely because the spoilers are sadly, so influential in the Syrian context. But with the increasing threat of significant regional spill over member states and the UN SC may feel stability needs to be imposed and enforced by a UN force on areas where local ceasefires were not being agreed to by a set time or have been broken. Again, this would be part of a national plan activated if necessary at a local level. The mid term milestone would still be UN organised elections. That is the prize.


All of these suggestions are ambitious but that is exactly what we should be demanding from Syrians and the International community - a level of ambition which meets the highest ideals we as humans set out for ourselves in the UN Declaration of Human Rights..ie  “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Giving too much respect or airtime to sectarian, geopolitical and religious narratives is destroying Syria and contributing to the deaths of Syrian civilians. A wider, more inclusive view of what it means to be “Syrian” is truly needed. Those groups that think they can lead the country out of this madness should be seeking to make their case at the ballot box. They will not please everybody including within their own constituencies but name me a political party that can do that.

Ultimately, if we do not have an ambitious vision for getting out of this hell then Syria and large parts of the region will burn to ashes because that is the logical conclusion of the current state of affairs. We must not let that happen.


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