There is a strong stench of hypocrisy about Western condemnation of the Syrian presidential election which is certain to return President Bashar al-Assad for a third term. William Hague had earlier condemned it as “a parody of democracy” after chairing a meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, which includes those great exponents of democratic values Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan.
It is reasonable to criticise the Syrian election held without credible opposition candidates as a demonstration of Mr Assad’s power rather than as an exercise in democracy. But Mr Hague’s words would carry more weight if he were equally vociferous in condemning the presidential election in Egypt a week earlier, when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was returned against nominal opposition. The majority of Egyptians shunned the poll, despite desperate government efforts to get out the vote.
Western support for the rebels in Syria has little to do with installing secular democracy and much to do with getting rid of a traditional opponent of Western policy. In the two years after 2011 there was an exaggerated belief outside Syria that Mr Assad would go down like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. It never happened but his opponents, be they Western governments or domestic insurgents, still pretend that Mr Assad is going to be pressured into giving up power. This, despite the fact that he controls 13 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals.
The re-election of Mr Assad as President confirms that he has no intention of seeing himself replaced. The Syrian army, though short of combat troops, has been slowly driving back his opponents in Damascus and Homs, though much of the east and north of the country is likely to remain in rebel hands. Mr Assad may think he can break this stalemate but it is not likely.
What makes the position of people such as Mr Hague peculiarly hypocritical is that they do not, in fact, want Mr Assad to be defeated by his most effective military opponents such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qa’ida affiliate, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq. But instead of devising new policies to cope with the real situation on the ground, Mr Hague and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, pretend that there is a “moderate” opposition that, given enough weapons, will one day be capable of replacing Mr Assad.
In reality, more guns will simply prolong the conflict and not end the present stalemate. A better way forward would be to try to de-escalate the conflict through local agreements and truces such as that which led recently to the final evacuation of Homs Old City and the opposition relaxing the siege of two pro-government towns west of Aleppo. For all the fragmentation of the opposition, such deals evidently are feasible.
Neither side is going to win a military victory in the Syrian civil war. Peace will come only when they share power, but mutual fear and hatred is too deep for them to rule Syria together. Government authority in Damascus is monopolised by the presidency and the security services, and Mr Assad is unlikely to dilute his control of them. It would be better to share power geographically, with each side holding its present territory. Even a rickety truce is better than continuing devastation.