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The Audacity of Hopelessness: Why Bashar al-Assad Will Cruise to Victory

BEIRUT -- Ever since the Assad family began counting the votes in Syria, it has amassed a series of electoral victories that can't be matched by any surviving Middle Eastern political dynasty. During his three decades in power, Hafez al-Assad won five presidential elections, each time winning 99 or 100 percent of the vote. And in 2000, a referendum approved Bashar al-Assad's ascension to the presidency by a 97 percent margin; particularly fervent supporters pricked their fingers to mark their ballots in blood as a sign of loyalty. In 2007, Assad won 98 percent of the votes in his re-election campaign, leading the United States to sarcastically congratulate him on "his ability to have defeated exactly zero other candidates."

This summer, Assad will almost certainly stand for re-election to another seven-year term as president despite an ongoing civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and destabilized much of the Middle East. The signs of Syria's coming election season are everywhere: The parliament recently approved a new election law that will exclude members of the opposition, top government officials have publicly endorsed Assad's candidacy, and security forces and pro-Assad paramilitary forces have asked shopkeepers in Damascus to paint their stores' metal shutters the colors of the Syrian flag to give the capital a patriotic hue.

Assad himself has even made public appearances geared toward presenting himself as a force for stability and order in Syria. Last month, he visited the town of Adra, near the fiercely contested suburbs east of Damascus, to meet with Syrians displaced by the fighting. Syrian state television footage of the visit shows Assad consoling families and promising to exert all possible efforts to find kidnapped relatives or securing much-needed medicine. "We wanted to salute you in order to say that the state is for everyone; it is for all Syrians," he told a cheering crowd. "Every one of you is a son of the state."

Assad's opponents will surely dismiss the elections as a bad joke. But supporters of the Syrian government believe Assad now finds himself in his strongest position to date since the beginning of the uprising -- and see the election as a way to underscore that the political structures dominated by Assad are still in place, and have survived the three-year insurgency.

"[Assad's] message is that the country needs healing, it needs a new political process; and he will probably carry this political process," said Kamel Wazne, the founder of the Center of American Strategic Studies, a Beirut-based think tank concerned with the Middle East. "The country needs reconstruction; he will lead this reconstruction of the country."

Wazne pointed to the Syrian government's gains in the mountainous Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, in the city of Homs, and in the Damascus suburbs as examples of how Assad has regained the military advantage over his enemies. The regional and international environment also looks bright for the Syrian strongman: Wazne says that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar were hindering cooperation between two of the rebels' most important patrons, while the showdown between the United States and Russia in Ukraine was virtually certain to further strengthen Moscow's support for Assad. "Before the election, you're probably going to see most of the country being under the control of the Syrian army," he said.

The Syrian government's ability to hold a vote in large swathes of the country, then, could serve as a high-profile reminder of Assad's continued reach -- and the increasing likelihood that he'll prevail in Syria's brutal civil war. And with the possibility that multiple candidates could run for the presidency, some government supporters insist that the days of securing victories in the high 90 percent range are over.

"These are the first elections in Syria," said Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general. The referendums in 2000 and 2007 that confirmed Assad as president, he argued, were different -- by not allowing voters an alternative, they all but guaranteed that Assad would win a massive majority. He pointed to the January constitutional referendum in Egypt, which passed with 98 percent of the vote, as evidence that such votes largely achieved overwhelming support. "In all over the world, not just in Syria, any referendum starts with more than 90 percent...if you don't agree, you don't go [vote]," he said, though most election experts would likely disagree.

It still remains unclear who would emerge as even a token challenger to Assad. The election law requires that candidates have lived in Syria for 10 consecutive years, disqualifying opposition members who were driven into exile.

Whoever else runs, nobody is predicting that the Assad clan's string of seven straight presidential victories since Hafez al-Assad seized power in a 1970 military coup is about to be broken. While Assad's enemies jeer the upcoming election and his allies hope it will restore a measure of legitimacy to the regime, others have reacted with little more than a shrug.

"I fearlessly predict there will not be much of a race and he'll win handily, surprising no one and restoring none of his vanished governing legitimacy," said Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former top State Department official on Syria. "Besides, if his gunners and barrel bombers get the day off to vote it would be a good thing for a lot of children and their parents."

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

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The Day the Kremlin’s Propaganda Machine Came to Washington

Under the terms of the sanctions the Obama administration imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea, senior Russian lawmaker Sergyi Zheleznyak has been barred from traveling to the United States, but that didn't stop him from appearing Monday at Washington's National Press Club for a virtuoso performance of Kremlin agitprop.

Zheleznyak, the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, treated the journalists gathered in Washington and Moscow, from which he appeared via video-link, to a two-hour display of deceit and deception. Using every trick in the big book of Russian propaganda, Zheleznyak shamelessly fearmongered, touted Russia's alleged moral superiority and military might, and proceeded to dismiss realities on the ground in Crimea, which was invaded and absorbed into Russia.

Zheleznyak appeared alongside Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former member of parliament, and their remarks, laced with colorful Russian proverbs, were poorly translated into English by an interpreter. Zheleznyak is one of 11 Kremlin insiders sanctioned in response to Russia's actions in Crimea. The panel was co-hosted by Kremlin-backed news service RIA Novosti and moderated in Washington by Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow.

What ensued was nearly two hours of unabashed, old-school propaganda.

Nuclear fear-mongering never did any harm

When Lozansky, the Washington moderator, asked about a proposal made by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to provide lethal arms to the Ukrainian government, Zheleznyak responded with an incendiary threat about Ukrainian nuclear power plants. If U.S-provided weapons fall into the "wrong hands," these facilities could be attacked by rogue Ukrainian militants, Zheleznyak warned. "We don't know where the wind will blow," he said, offhandedly reminding his audience of the "Chernobyl tragedy."

You think you're so smart, John McCain?

According to Zheleznyak, it's a dog-eat-dog world in Ukraine. If American weapons were to fall into the hands of a man with no food, "he will kill people." And if America doesn't believe Zheleznyak's warnings, he has a perfect guinea pig in mind to explore the situation on the ground. "If American colleagues want tests they should send McCain there and see if he can survive."  

Nationalist "bandits" have "taken the country hostage"

The Kremlin has repeatedly described the anti-government protesters who toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as "Nazis" and "fascists." Monday's conference was no different. According to Zheleznyak , the entire country of Ukraine is "populated by armed militants in balaclavas," who are "outlaws" and whose motives are "unknown." The country, according to Markov, needs "free democratic elections, not under the neo-Nazi AK-47." The threat of "radicalization," Zheleznyak warned, has extended to all of Europe, especially in light of the recent financial crisis.

"Full soldier is better than a hungry soldier"

When asked about a recent aid shipment from the United States to Ukraine, Markov responded by first making allegations about the U.S. Navy's presence in the Black Sea. (A Navy destroyer, the USS Truxton, has left the Black Sea after a training exercise.) He then proceeded to compare the current crisis to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which was eventually resolved by President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev through a behind-the-scenes deal. "We think Obama should be wise as Kennedy" instead of "wrangling with his gun across the world."

Zheleznyak seemed less concerned about U.S. aid to Ukraine. "Full soldier is better than a hungry soldier. If the Ukrainian soldiers have to be fed, that's okay. It's better than cannons." In the end, it doesn't matter to the Russians. "Ukrainian army is very weak, no morale," Markov said.

Russia as the upholder of international law

Repeatedly referring to the current government in Kiev as a "junta," Zheleznyak rejected upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine as illegitimate and maintained that only one binding international document remains: the Feb. 21 agreement between the opposition and the then-president, Yanukovych. That agreement called for early elections and constitutional reform, and, according to Zheleznyak, international law "is the only anchor that we have to stick to." Never mind the fact that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been roundly condemned as a violation of international law.

Russia as the upholder of political freedoms

Markov presented three demands for Ukrainian authorities: Release all political prisoners, curtail "political censorship," and introduce a federal system for governing Ukraine. While it is unclear which political prisoners he hoped to free from the "junta" in Kiev, he failed to mention Russia's long list of prisoners of conscience and restrictions on media freedoms.  

Ukraine has gone back to the stone age

Throughout the conference, Zheleznyak repeatedly referred to Ukraine's alleged "return to the stone age." In the last three months, Zheleznyak said, conditions in Ukraine have regressed from those of a civilized European country and now resemble the stone age -- "where everyone is trying to survive ... where anyone can be assaulted or attacked by gangsters." Needless to say, most reports suggest a tense calm has settled in Ukraine.

Poverty and oppression have prepared Mother Russia well for sanctions

Zheleznyak, one of the officials targeted by U.S. sanctions, dismissed the threat of more sweeping punitive measures under discussion by the United States and Europe. "Due to complex living conditions that Russians used to have, the level of survivability and adaptability is much higher than for US and EU citizens," Zheleznyak said.

The Russian people may not like it, he said, but they have been through worse.

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