A decent Syrian election: result, not prelude

Jimmy Carter and Robert Pastor propose an election to resolve Syria’s civil war.  They suggest three principles that would have to be accepted as preconditions for negotiating the war’s end:

● Self-determination: The Syrian people should decide on the country’s future government in a free election process under the unrestricted supervision of the international community and responsible nongovernmental organizations, with the results accepted if the elections are judged free and fair;

● Respect: The victors should assure and guarantee respect for all sectarian and minority groups; and

● Peacekeepers: To ensure that the first two goals are achieved, the international community must guarantee a robust peacekeeping force.

And they spell out first steps:

An important first step is to create a credible, independent, nonpartisan election commission. A second important step is to build a security mechanism that would prevent any party from sabotaging the election or implementation of the results. We would need Russia and the United States to agree to this approach, Iran and other regional powers to stop supporting their proxies and the United Nations to elevate this issue to a top priority.

What’s wrong with that?

Pretty much everything, so long as Bashar al Asad remains in power.  Syria’s previous elections under Asad and his father have been unfree and unfair.  They were non-competitive plebiscites intended to confirm pre-determined people in power rather than chose serious representatives of the people.  Voters literally marked their ballots with a bloody fingerprint in past elections.  To imagine that a free and fair election can be organized under wartime conditions with Bashar al Asad still in place–as Carter and Pastor imply–is delusional.

But it is precisely what Bashar will propose in Geneva:  let the spring presidential elections decide whether he is to stay or go.

It is also delusional to think that there is some way of ensuring respect for all minorities and sectarian groups.  But this is also precisely what Bashar al Asad claims is the case under his rule.  It isn’t primarily minorities he kills.  It is the majority Sunni population.  Many, but by far not all, minorities support the regime and its homicidal behavior.

Then there are those peacekeepers.  Where will they come from?  By any conventional measure, well over 100,000 would be needed to pacify a country the size of Syria.  More likely, 300,000.  No Americans, no Europeans.  So also no Russians or Chinese.  No Turks, no Iraqis, no Iranians, no Jordanians, as they are all bordering states not trusted by one or another of the Syrian warring parties.  No Egyptians, no Tunisians, no Libyans, no Yemenis, no Moroccans, no Algerians, as they are all Arab states already faced with dramatic internal challenges.  No Gulf states, as they don’t want to face such challenges and have provided support to the Syrian revolution.  Few Africans, who have too many deployments inside Africa to handle already.

Latin Americans? Indonesians? Filipinos? Bengladeshis? Pakistanis? Indians?  Under UN flag?  I suppose so.  This would be a mission on the order of five or ten times larger than any previous UN mission, under non-permissive conditions.  The UN would need to authorize robust rules of engagement, more like those that have been used recently in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo than those published in UN doctrine.  How well is that likely to work in a country where Al Qaeda and regime extremists will not be willing to accept the results of an election (or even allow one to occur)?

I’m all in favor of Syrians choosing their own government in free and fair elections.  A truly independent electoral commission and good security arrangements will be needed.  And I’d like to see a Syrian government that treats all its citizens with respect.  But the notion that any of this is going to happen any time soon with Bashar al Asad in power is not only delusional.  It plays into his narrative and would, if implemented, help him to stay in power.

Syria is at least three* to five years from a decent election.  Bashar al Asad cannot be a candidate if peace is to prevail.  A decent election will be the result of a peace settlement, not the prelude to one.

*I added this to the original text.  It could happen in three years if a good agreement is reached.

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