Earlier this month, Bashar al-Assad began his fourth term as president of war-torn Syria. Numerous international powers denounced the latest election results with claims of domestic election interference. Under Assad’s rule, Syria has plunged into a drawn-out civil war, which killed and displaced millions, and sparked a humanitarian crisis. If Assad continues to remain in power, the country’s prospects look bleak. The international community must curtail his influence and support a transition of power as well as recovery efforts.
Assad first became president in 2000, succeeding his father, who had ruled the country since 1971. Many Syrians and regional experts hoped that the new presidency would result in democratic and economic reform. However, Assad’s rule has featured authoritarian tendencies, and the country has suffered significantly. In March 2011, as Arab Spring movements spread across the Middle East, a pro-democracy uprising erupted across Syria, pushing for an end to Assad’s dictatorial rule and an end to ongoing political and economic instability. The regime responded to the protests harshly, deploying police, military, and paramilitary forces to suppress protests. In response, Syrian citizens formed opposition militias, which resulted in the outbreak of a full-scale civil war that is still ongoing.
The Syrian Civil War has radically changed the landscape of the Middle Eastern country. Over the past ten years, approximately half a million people have died in the conflict, most of whom were victims of the Assad regime’s military operations. In addition, the war has resulted in 12 million Syrians becoming internally displaced or refugees, sparking one of the largest refugee crises in recent history. Today, around 90% of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line, and one-third of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. According to recent estimates, approximately 11 million Syrians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. The situation in Syria has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and international sanctions, which reduce access to critical supplies.
The civil war has also been characterized by unprecedented levels of brutality and war crimes. Reports indicate that the Assad regime deployed chemical weapons against its own people, purposefully attacked hospitals during airstrikes, and carried out mass executions of political prisoners. As a result of these heinous human rights violations, foreign powers, including the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League, have called on Assad to step down and instituted sanctions to curtail his access to critical resources. However, Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia, have continued to offer an option to skirt sanctions, supporting the regime, while simultaneously expanding their own ideologies.
As the civil war continues, the Syrian population suffers from extreme poverty and crisis, and Assad’s re-election highlights the seemingly endless cycle of violence and oppression. Assad’s recent ‘win’ has spotlighted the dictator’s stranglehold on Syrian elections. According to the election results, the Syrian leader obtained 95% of the vote. However, foreign powers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy, have discredited the results of the May 26 election, asserting the election was not free or fair and that Assad used his dictatorial power to reassert power over the country. Indeed, while on the surface the election appears as a free and democratic process, however, this is not true. Assad’s regime has pushed back against these claims and stated the election’s outcome undermines Western efforts to question the state’s legitimacy and his rule.
Experts have discussed how to resolve the numerous crises in Syria and bring an end to the civil war, and whether these outcomes are possible under Assad’s rule. First, international powers such as the U.S. and the United Nations are unlikely to allow Assad back into international organizations given the wide range of human rights violations and authoritarian practices under the dictator’s name. As a result, Western powers will continue to impose sanctions on Syria and undermine Assad’s rule, even if this results in more violence. On the other hand, some nations are beginning to recognize the human toll that the Syrian civil war has taken and want to support the regime’s efforts to rebuild Syria’s infrastructure and economy. Pursuing this route would benefit the Syrian people. But, it would require nations that previously opposed the Assad regime on moral grounds to walk back their opposition and adopt a more collaborative nature. This has already happened at a regional level. Many Arab countries have reopened diplomatic channels with Syria and supported Syria’s efforts to be readmitted into the Arab League. Such nations are particularly concerned with supporting Syria’s reconstruction efforts and minimizing Iran, Turkey, and Russia’s influence in the region. However, Assad is a central complication to both approaches, indicating that his presence will continue to hamper efforts to resolve the crisis and further recovery efforts.
For almost a decade, Syria has suffered through a conflict that has killed and displaced millions and eroded economic opportunities, under the name of dictator Bashar al-Assad. Although experts are yet to identify the appropriate path forward, one thing is clear — Assad must go. Influential Western powers must do more to restore peace and stability in Syria, instigating recovery and progress, only then Syrians will be free.