Wednesday 26 November 2014

The barrel bomb and the ballot box – how Assad held on to power amid slaughter

Robert Fisk

Published 04/06/2014 | 02:30

A man holds an injured child at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Kalaseh neighbourhood in Aleppo. Reuters
A man holds an injured child at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Kalaseh neighbourhood in Aleppo. Reuters
Smoke rises from a damaged building which was attacked by a government airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. AP
A general view of damaged buildings in Aleppo. Reuters
Civil Defence members and civilians carry a casualty at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood. Reuters
A Syrian man carrying an injured girl after a government airstrike hit Aleppo. Reuters
People inspect a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood. Reuters
Syrian President Bashar Assad casts his vote as Syrian first lady Asma Assad, right, stands next to him at a polling station, in Damascus, Syria. AP Photo/Syrian Presidency via Facebook
Free Syrian Army fighters walk in Aleppo. Reuters
Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) members walk in the Sheikh Maksoud area in Aleppo. Reuters
A man walks with his bicycle as others sit at a damaged site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Katerji district in Aleppo. Reuters

It's really all a question of proportion. The former Field Marshal Sisi's 93.7pc presidential electoral victory in Egypt last week must surely have been outshone by Bashar al-Assad yesterday, albeit the skies of Damascus were filled with howling fighter jets and the thump of explosions as its citizens shouted and danced outside the voting booths.

Two dull and obedient politicians, one a former minister – both born losers – were added to the hitherto one-man presidential voting list for the first time in Baathist history, so when I asked the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem if there was any danger of Bashar losing, he wisely replied: "This is up to the Syrian people."

Ah, the Syrian people. Crushed, humiliated, tortured, imprisoned, slaughtered, forever crying for freedom from terror – note how these words of tragedy are used by both sides against each other in Syria's agony – they were invited to participate, at the height of their agony, in a little lesson in Middle Eastern democracy. A total 60pc of the population were able to vote yesterday in the 40pc of Syria firmly controlled by the regime, in more than 9,000 voting stations, most of which were vulnerable to the gunfire of Bashar's largely Western-supported opponents.

These rebel forces, fading secularists, frightening Islamists promised a rain of rocket-fire into the country's cities to destroy an election which American and European leaders had condemned as a farce. From dawn, mortar bombs and rockets crashed into central Damascus – until Bashar's MiG fighter jets swept over town and blasted their suburbs and all within them in the most persuasive form of electoral violence suppression in the history of democracy.

Or not, as the case may be. Bashar and his wife Asma – yes, in a bridal white jacket – pushed their vote into an equally white box before Syrian television. In the Starship Enterprise interior of the Syrian foreign ministry – a vast white Christmas-cake palace on the edge of the suburbs, echoing to the bomb explosions – a clutch of his ministers gathered to produce their identity papers, garlanded in Syrian flags, eager to place their signatures beneath the portrait of Bashar on the ballot paper.

At least, one must assume that such loyal men – they included Mr Muallem, his eloquent deputy Faisal Mekdad and Syria's canny Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi – voted for a third seven-year term for Bashar. There were indeed curtains to protect the privacy of the voting booths, and the foreign ministry – whose massive walls make it one of the best-defended buildings in Damascus – was a suitable venue.

"Do you want to vote?" a clerk asked me with double-edged humour. I got the point. Was I to vote for Sisi, perhaps?

But there were some differences between the Pharaoh and former field marshal who now rules Egypt and the former optometrist who now – and surely for years to come – rules Syria. For just as Sisi's election was marked by grimly empty polling stations and an electorate weary of its heatwave revolution, Syria's electorate turned up in their thousands with bands, posters of That Man – in full commander-in-chief costume or smiling against a roaring Mediterranean – and long queues of young men in tribal headdress. Spontaneous? Never. Coerced? Up to a point. Happy? Who could read behind the smiles and forlorn cries of "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you"?

The militant opposition, of course, were not represented – the Islamists would not wish to be, and many of them are not even Syrian – and Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri and Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, the two has-beens-to-be whose pictures also adorned the voting papers and who have no criticisms of Assad, didn't stand a chance. Mr Nouri, by the way, has a masters in public administration from the University of Wisconsin and a PhD from Kennedy University in California; Hajjar is famous for telling Syria's Christians that they remained "neutral" when their country faced a foreign conspiracy.

Twenty-four candidates originally presented themselves for the presidency, but they were whittled down to the lonely three for the elections, including – deus ex machina – Bashar himself. So will historians interpret all this as a political punch by the president to match the military victories which his armies – including rather a lot of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards – have clocked up? (© Independent News Service)

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