The Biggest Losers

Meet the two hapless candidates running in Syria’s stage-managed farce of an election to confirm president-for-life Bashar al-Assad.

BEIRUT — It's campaign season in Damascus, and the streets are festooned with posters of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president is shown in a suit, smiling and waving; in another poster, he appears in a military uniform wearing aviator sunglasses, staring off into the distance. He is even portrayed as a chess grandmaster: In one campaign ad, the scene opens with the United States, Israel, France, and the Arab countries of the Gulf playing one side of a chessboard, arrayed against Syria on the other. While the anti-Assad coalition sets up its chess pieces normally, the Syrian side is made up exclusively of multicolored pawns.

When Assad's enemies move a piece, the video cuts to a recent spasm of violence in the Arab world: the 2003 "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq, the 2006 war in Lebanon, and the 2008 Gaza war. But the Assad side fights back, taking a knight here, a rook there. As dramatic music plays in the background, the game starts to become intense: The Israeli player slams his hand down in frustration at a Syrian move, and the French player loosens his tie. 

Finally, the anti-Assad side plays what it believes to be its winning move -- what the video calls the "2011 war on Syria." The Israeli and Arab Gulf chess players share an awkward high-five. Pieces start flying off the board, and the Israeli player, chuckling, moves his side's queen. Children's screams are heard in the background.

But then something changes. The Syrian side huddles, stacking their hands on top of one another -- they are finally going to work together. The camera pans down to show that this is no ordinary chessboard: The anti-Assad forces are confronted by dozens of rows of Syrian pawns, some of them painted in military camouflage, interspersed with squares occupied by the Syrian flag. "Strongest Together," the Assad campaign ad intones. 

The Syrian presidential election will be held on June 3, and it will end with Assad's re-election. The United States and its allies have already denounced the vote as a farce. For the Syrian regime, however, it represents an opportunity to showcase its expanding control over several of the country's urban centers, and to highlight its persistent support among segments of the population. The vote will only be held in regime-controlled areas, and the Syrian military has pushed hard over the past months to capture new territory and sign local truces with rebel groups ahead of the ballot. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham blocked citizens from leaving the city of Raqqa in order to prevent them from voting.

Across the border, tens of thousands of Syrians flocked last week to the Syrian Embassy in Lebanon, to cast absentee ballots in the election. The process showed a casual disregard for the rules of a fair vote: Volunteers shoved ballots into the hands of anyone who approached, and voters regularly cast multiple votes. However, that fact did nothing to dampen the Syrian regime's sense of triumph. 

"Syrians in Lebanon vote overwhelmingly for the will of the nation and the war on terror," crowed the headline in Syria's state-owned newspaper Tishreen. The voters "turn[ed] the electoral process into a national wedding," reported the Syrian Baathist newspaper al-Thawra.

Many of the Syrians who voted seemed to be genuine supporters of Assad. Others appeared to have been motivated by widespread rumors that if they neglected to vote, they would not be allowed back into Syria. But whether enthusiastic or coerced, voters at the Syrian Embassy outside Beirut all had one thing in common: They ticked the box under the picture for Dr. Bashar Hafez al-Assad, and ignored the images of the two largely anonymous candidates next to him. 

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The two candidates challenging Assad, businessman Hassan al-Nouri and communist MP Maher Hajjar, have zero chance of being elected president. But as the first candidates allowed to run against an Assad in the family's four-decade rule, their positions shed light on the issues the regime considers open for debate -- and those on which it will brook no dissent. 

In interviews with Foreign Policy, conducted by a journalist within Syria, both candidates expressed their full support for Assad's effort to crush the insurgency against his rule, describing the armed opposition to the regime as primarily made up of Islamist extremists and foreign jihadists. But they also leveled sometimes frank criticism at Assad himself for what they characterized as his mismanagement of the economy and centralization of power within a small clique of supporters. 

Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri is a former parliamentarian and minister for administrative development. He currently heads the regime-tolerated National Initiative for Administration and Change in Syria, and also heads a business school in Syria. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said that regime figures had approached him to ask if he was willing to run, but denied they had offered him political incentives -- as a successful businessman, he said, "ten ministers would not be able to reach my salary." His campaign stands for economic liberalization, and his billboards boast the less-than-inspiring slogan "Upgrading Economic Legislation."

His biography published in Syrian state media and subsequent media reports says that he received a Ph.D. in general management from John F. Kennedy University, which is located in California. However, the university told FP that it has no record of his enrollment and does not offer Ph.D. programs. A website for the International School of Business Management, where Nouri sits on an advisory board, contains a biography for the former minister that provides an image of his diploma, which states that he attended Kennedy-Western University. This unaccredited, Wyoming-based university was the focus of a 2004 federal investigation that it was a "diploma mill" doling out degrees for minimal work, and was forced to close its doors in 2009. 

"The age of the sole ruler has come to an end," Nouri told FP. Assad's rule has resulted in the emergence of a "100 family economy" that controls the preponderance of the country's wealth, he said, while the middle class has collapsed.

Nouri framed his efforts to combat corruption and improve the country's economy as a strategy for strengthening Syria's struggle against both the United States and Israel. "The U.S. administration knows full well that there is no way to breach Syria militarily," he said. "The United States can only breach Syria socially, because of its scientific supremacy" -- which, he noted, Damascus can circumvent through internal reform and deeper cooperation with Russia. 

When it comes to political reform and the regime's ongoing crackdown on its domestic enemies, however, Nouri had nothing but praise for Assad. He heralded the country's new "modern and balanced" constitution as opening the door for political pluralism in the country, and said that the coming election would be "honest and democratic, in the Syrian way."

He slammed both the United States and the Syrian opposition as being on the verge of suffering a humiliating defeat. He accused Ahmad Jarba, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, of stealing more than $75 million from the opposition's coffers. "The coalition is done for now that corruption has seeped into it, and I am optimistic in achieving victory soon," he said. 

Maher Hajjar, the other regime-sanctioned opposition candidate, stands for the precisely opposite economic vision of Nouri -- and his rhetoric about combating the United States and Israel is perhaps even more strident than Assad's. Hajjar is a representative of Syria's fractious far-left movements: He joined the Syrian Communist Party in 1984, and later left it in 2000 to become part of the communist leadership in Aleppo. He then formed the Popular Will Party, and won a seat in parliament in the 2012 election on its electoral list. However, following the announcement of his presidential candidacy, the party contended that he was no longer a member. Meanwhile, the Syrian Communist Party -- led by longtime regime loyalists from the Bakdash family -- declared that it would support Assad in the presidential election.

In his interview with FP, Hajjar attacked American policies across the globe, arguing that aggression was baked into the U.S. political system. As he put it, Washington is "breathing through an iron lung structured by war and murder, in cooperation with international Zionism." 

Hajjar was even more hawkish when it came to the Arab countries of the Gulf, which have been key players in arming and funding the Syrian rebels. He said that if he becomes president, he would sever relations with these "regressive" states, and extend the Arab Spring by working to overthrow their leaders. "I will support liberation movements to topple Gulf regimes," he said. "The Arab liberation movement erred when it reconciled with those regimes instead of being their opponents."

Like Nouri, Hajjar is a critic of Assad's management of the Syrian economy. He accused the current government of haphazard policies, "improvis[ing] solutions for partial and daily problems" without an underlying strategy. Unlike Nouri, however, his solution is increased state control: He called for an economic policy focused on "social justice," which would redistribute a large share of corporate profits to the workers. 

Hajjar's billboards, meanwhile, are aimed at the Syrians who have seen their livelihoods and their homes destroyed over the past three years of war. Vote for him, they say, "In order to live with dignity."

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Assad, meanwhile, has stayed above the disagreements of his opponents, launching a slick campaign revolving around the word sawa, colloquial Syrian Arabic for "together."

The campaign -- which boasts Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts -- portrays the Syrian president as an antidote to the chaos and instability that currently wrack Syria. The relentlessly optimistic message is that only Assad can return the country to security and prosperity. 

The campaign's recurring theme is that Syrians must come together to defeat their domestic and foreign enemies. The "Strongest Together" ad, where the pro-Assad chess team unites to defeat the anti-Assad coalition in the game of global politics, is just one example. In another campaign ad, titled "Together Against Terrorism," Syrians work together to knock down a graffitied wall and let daylight back into their homes. A third, called "Together We Rebuild the Country," shows hard-hatted workers collaborating to rebuild a wrecked neighborhood, then gazing up at the Syrian flag.

The campaign also touts Assad as the leader who can reverse the economic hardships Syrians have faced over the past three years of turmoil. In a tacit acknowledgement of the triple-digit inflation in the country, which has eaten into families' savings and put all but the most basic staples out of reach, the campaign tweeted an image of a Syrian coin sprouting in a pile of dirt, along with wheat and cotton. "Together the lira strengthens," the image says.

There is no doubt that Assad will win the election tomorrow by a massive margin. Whether he will convince Syrians to place their faith in the rules of official Syrian politics -- a chessboard on which Assad is invincible -- is another matter entirely. While the Syrian president's polished campaign is more than enough to defeat his two rivals, it at times slips into the sort of tone-deafness that led Syrians to revolt in the first place.

Speaking in the name of a candidate who inherited the Syrian presidency from his father and has relied on his family members to serve as the backbone of his regime ever since, his campaign tweeted: "Favoritism is one of the main causes of corruption."



The Great Game on Central Asia's High Plain

As a muscled-up Russia pushes for more leverage over Kazakhstan, a wary Astana strives to make new, powerful friends.

ASTANA — There is an old adage in Kazakhstan: "Happiness is multiple pipelines."

For the oil-and-gas rich Caspian country, keeping up good relations with a handful of customers -- namely, Russia, China, and the West -- at all times, without engaging too deeply with a single player, has been a guiding foreign policy principle since it gained independence in 1991. And until recently, this careful diplomatic balancing act seemed to be paying off: in the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country's population of 17 million people has grown into the most prosperous in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has built a glittering new capital, Astana, in the middle of the steppe, which will soon be home to the tallest skyscraper in the region. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan's autocratic ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, even considered removing the "stan" from the country's name to set it apart from its less fortunate neighbors: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Now, though, being a "stan" looks like the least of Nazarbayev's geopolitical worries. The president just signed an agreement with Russia and Belarus on May 29 to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Vladimir Putin's brainchild and Russia's answer to the European Union. Putin's hope is that the EEU, a tariff-free trade union, will eventually draw in many of the states in Russia's near-abroad, tying the region's political and economic fortunes to the Kremlin. But behind the curtain of this shiny new free-trade zone, all is not well between Astana and Moscow.

Putin's recent Ukrainian adventures have set off alarm bells in this country, which is home to the largest proportion of ethnic Russians among the Central Asian former Soviet republics (they make up nearly a quarter of the population). Now, some worry that Putin may be playing a long game with Kazakhstan: drawing the country closer into Russia's orbit and deepening integration, then waiting for an episode of turmoil -- say, the sort that might unfold if the ailing Nazarbayev, 73, dies -- to assert greater control. Could Kazakhstan's multi-pronged foreign policy -- so lucrative for so long -- finally be faltering?

Russia has long had extensive ties to Kazakhstan, left over from the Soviet period. Oil and gas pipelines, an electricity grid, and railways all link the two nations, which share a 4,000-mile border. Russia is the country's biggest trading partner, with over $26 billion in bilateral trade last year; it is the main consumer of Kazakhstan's non-oil exports, which include mining products and chemicals; Kazakhstan still plays host to the Russia-managed Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's largest operational spaceport. But the ties go deeper than just trade and physical capital: In addition to the ethnic Russians who, in northern Kazakhstan, make up as much as 50 percent of the population, most Kazakhs still speak Russian. (In fact, more speak Russian than Kazakh: about 85 percent can read and write in Russian, compared to just 62 percent for the country's native tongue).

Putin, not content to rest on the vestiges of a past era, has also embarked on a renewed push to exercise soft power. The Kremlin still exercises heavy influence on the Russian-speaking mass media organizations in Kazakhstan, and -- behind the scenes -- the Kremlin  is also believed to be funding pro-Russian institutions and cultural and language programming.

But even before Putin trained his eye on Ukraine, Nazarbayev showed signs of chafing under Russia's increasingly tight embrace. In recent years, for instance, Kazakh authorities, albeit cautiously, have begun urging state-owned television stations to begin broadcasting in Kazakh, and pushing for more Kazakh-language Internet content. In 2012, Nazarbayev announced that written Kazakh will switch from using Cyrillic letters to the Roman alphabet by 2025 -- a move that many observers read as a sign of trying to move away from the Russian sphere. Kazakhstan has also moved to restrict the number of commercial satellites Russia can launch from the Cosmodrome, and pushed for greater say in its operations.

Russia's intervention in Ukraine, however, has elevated these long-standing concerns. One need only look at how the local media has covered events in recent weeks for an indication of just how hot the relationship has become. In the wake of Russia's Crimea annexation, the Kazakh press -- which is under tight government control -- has grown increasingly wary of Moscow. Featuring a menacing-looking Putin with the Soviet hammer and sickle flag in the background, the Kazakh edition of Forbes magazine asked "Back to the USSR?" Adam Bol magazine went with the headline "Is Kazakhstan Being Dragged Into Someone Else's War?" while the Assandi Times asked its readers directly: "Is Kazakhstan Threatened With Occupation Tomorrow?" (As it turns out, that would be one of Assandi Times's last headlines. On April 2, its offices were raided by officials under a court order to close it down.)  

The Kazakh authorities themselves have walked a delicate diplomatic tightrope throughout the Ukrainian crisis. The Foreign Ministry remained silent in February, as Russian forces began taking control of the Crimean peninsula, eventually issuing a carefully worded statement on March 3, urging "all parties to maintain a balanced, objective and responsible approach." Two weeks later, the authorities changed tack, becoming one of the first countries to recognize Crimean independence. The U-turn was made complete on March 25, when Nazarbayev described the overthrow of Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovych as an "unconstitutional coup d'etat" and accused Ukraine of infringing the rights of ethnic minorities.

Yet, trying to allay fears of further Russian intervention, Nazarbayev that same day declared that "as far as our political independence is concerned, this is sacrosanct, and Kazakhstan will not cede its sovereignty to anyone." But his statement did not seem to do the trick. Two weeks after his statement, an anti-EEU forum was held in Almaty. A rare display of popular dissent in a tightly controlled country, the event was attended by 500 people; the organizers asked for a guarantee that "the Kazakh government, known for ignoring the will of its own people, will not allow the country to lose its independence."

Despite the calls for independence, Kazakh authorities feel the need to tread carefully with their powerful neighbor. "Astana ... clearly does not wish to become the target of a destabilization," said Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at Columbia University and author of Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has sought to dial back the ambitions of Putin's EEU, which once aspired to move its member countries toward greater political, military, and economic unity. The country has rejected Kremlin proposals for a common passport, common currency, and a collective Parliament, among others. Though Kazakhstan's membership in the Eurasian Union likely means that, for the time being, Putin won't force further integration, authorities in Astana are taking steps to guard against potential aggression nonetheless. The Kazakh Parliament is considering amendments to its criminal code aiming to increase prison sentences for separatist activities. There have yet to be any reports of such activity, but the move is seen as a preemptive action, observers say. There are also reports in Kazakh media that, following the Crimea annexation, the government devised a plan to shift hundreds of thousands ethnic Kazakhs to the north, in order to bulk up their presence in the ethnically Russian-dominated northern regions. Maria Chichtchenkova, a protection coordinator for Central Asia at the human-rights organization Front Line Defenders, said she expects to see efforts to continue to downgrade the importance of Russian (the language still has the status of an official administrative language in Kazakhstan).

Behind the scenes, Kazakh authorities remain concerned by the number of citizens in the north who have obtained Russian passports, as well as the potential influence of Moscow-controlled media in the region, said Cooley, the Columbia professor. "The recent changes to the criminal code outlawing the spreading of separatist ideas and rumors is an indication that officials in Astana take the Crimean threat very seriously," he said.

But while Astana is looking warily to the west at Crimea, and to north to divine Moscow's intentions, it's also hedging bets by building relationships in the East. Kazakhstan has been an important battleground in the so-called New Great Game between Russia and China for influence in energy-rich Central Asia, and some in Astana are hoping that the growing relationship with China can help provide leverage against Russian influence. China has been Kazakhstan's largest investor since 2010, Cooley said, building new pipelines, helping to pay for energy infrastructure for Kazakh cities, and providing emergency loans to Kazakh state-run businesses.

During a visit in September 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nazarbayev inked further investment deals worth $30 billion, the most prominent of which was a $5 billion agreement with China's state oil firm CNPC to purchase a stake in the Kashagan offshore oil project. China already is connected to Kazakh oil via a 1,400 mile-long pipeline, which was opened in 2005, and by some estimates, has bought up rights to as much as 40 percent of Kazakhstan's hydrocarbon assets through joint-ventures and investments.

Astana is counting on its ties with Beijing to give Moscow pause should it get any ideas, said Jonathan Aitken, a former British MP and author of a biography of Nazarbayev. "The first hint of Russian aggression towards Kazakhstan would mean real worsening of the China-Russia relations," Aitken said. "In that sense, China represents a very protective force for the future of Kazakhstan."

But how Kazakhstan can reconcile a new dependence on China and deeper integration with Russia with its traditional multi-pronged foreign policy remains an open question. "Triangulating between the two large neighbors may no longer be possible for Kazakhstan," said one banking analyst who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. "And its balancing act will need to be reassessed."

Last month, at a meeting of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body, Nazarbayev put his country's conundrum more plainly: "Russia and China are our neighbors," he said. "And one cannot choose neighbors."