Inside Syria's Clapping Chamber: Dynamics of the 2020 Parliamentary Elections

Karam Shaar & Samy Akil*

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First edition: January 2021

Note: The data presented in this study was collected from unofficial sources. We therefore do not guarantee the correctness of all the information. If you want to suggest a revision, please use this form.

Executive Summary

This report discusses the results of the 2020 Syrian parliamentary elections to illuminate shifts in the al-Assad regime’s strategy to restore and maintain control over the country. Using evidence gathered from a range of sources, it sheds light on recent changes in the ethnic, religious, political, commercial, and military networks through which Syria’s dictatorship is sustained, and the future directions these shifts imply. The report’s key findings are as follows:

 

Widespread electoral fraud characterized the 2020 cycle at all stages, from the regime’s vetting of candidates to irregularities at voting stations on polling day, to a huge disparity between official and actual voting figures. There were lower levels of public participation in the electoral process and unprecedented levels of critique of the regime by former loyalists.

 

The election produced clear winners and losers among Syria’s ethnic and religious communities. Armenian state and community’s support during the war was rewarded by the appointment of four MPs, whereas the large Kurdish minority received only a token increase in parliamentary numbers. Almost all previous representatives from the Druze community were replaced before the election with (primarily) Ba’ath loyalists, in response to recent unrest in the predominantly Druze governorate of As-Suwayda. Other religious groups made marginal gains at the expense of the representation of Christian minority groups.

 

The National Progressive Front featured more parties in 2020 without gaining an equivalent number of seats. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party sustained particularly heavy losses as al-Assad attempted to curb its growing influence among former Ba’ath supporters and weaken its most powerful sponsors, the Maklouf family, while also disrupting its links to Russia.

 

Despite the obvious grassroots decline of the Ba’ath party, its share of the vote in 2020 translated to a remarkable 66.8% of seats, excluding all other parties from meaningful parliamentary influence. Many new Ba’athist and Independent members of the 2020 parliament have backgrounds in the military or militias, reflecting both their support for the regime’s war effort and al-Assad’s stated intention to instill militaristic values into Syrian politics and society.

 

There has been a marginal rise in numbers of Independent MPs, whose profile shifted to include business executives whose fortunes were often made in the war, while some former favorites were moved aside. The rise of Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, is reflected in the appointment of up to nine new MPs active in the charity and development sector. Finally, women’s parliamentary representation has fallen in 2020, with only 10.8% of all seats now occupied by women.

 

Overall, while the 2020 electoral map of Syria has shifted somewhat, the bigger picture remains depressingly familiar: unswerving loyalty to Assad remains the most important qualification for parliamentary appointment, the Ba’ath party continues to dominate parliament, and electoral fraud is widespread. Despite the dire economic condition of most Syrians and the obvious need for reform, the 2020 cycle shows the regime’s attempt to project an image of “business as usual”.

 

1- Introduction

In 2011, after a wave of protests swept through the Middle East, Syrians expressed shock at the slaughter of peaceful protesters by the regime and its security services. After two weeks of simmering tensions, Bashar al-Assad addressed parliament on the 31st of March. But instead of attempting to defuse the situation, he doubled down, arguing the protests were nothing more than a foreign conspiracy against Syria and its people — a narrative as old as the regime itself. During his speech, he was heckled by Khaled al-Ali, an MP from Hama: "Your honor, the Arab world is too small for you, you should rule the whole world instead ". This event would confirm Syria’s parliament as no more than an open space for ‘elected’ sycophants to showcase their loyalty.

However, as is the case with much of Syria’s political past, parliament was a lot more democratic prior to the rise of the al-Assad dynasty. The foundations of the Syrian People’s Council can be traced back to 1919, during the short-lived Syrian Arab Kingdom, making it the oldest parliament in the Arab World. Its current structure was founded in 1928 under the French mandate. Following independence in 1946, it was vested with broad powers, including legislative authority and extensive oversight of the executive branch.

Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1971 effectively stripped the parliament of all of its capabilities. He renamed it the ‘People’s Council’, and vested himself with absolute powers, including the ability to appoint ministers, reject laws, and dissolve the parliament at will. Since then, the assembly has held elections every four years, with all its results pre-determined to favor the Ba’ath party, whose constitutional status as "leader of the state and society" had preserved Hafez’s rule. Under Bashar al-Assad, the increasing militarization of the council has been reflected in the rising number of former military officers and militia leaders appointed to the chamber in the 2012, 2016, and 2020 election cycles.

Much of the initial analysis of the 2020 elections has failed to challenge the view that parliament is nothing more than a ‘clapping chamber’ for the al-Assad regime’s policies. This perception has been echoed by many Western observers, state governments, and the broader Syrian population. Even the official voter turnout of just 33.2% seems exaggerated. The lack of transparency, absence of independent observers, widespread voter irregularities, and exclusion of Syrian refugees from the elections have led many to dismiss the process as a farce. Yet the results still matter: while parliament remains unable to fulfill its key legislative and constitutional functions, scrutiny of its workings can provide valuable insight into Damascus’s strategy to restore authority.

 

The role of the People’s Council in ratifying decisions made by the Geneva-based Syrian Constitutional Committee is easily overstated. In practice, only one factor determines whether the constitution will be adopted: the say-so of al-Assad. Like other dictatorships, Syria maintains the facade of parliamentary elections in order to legitimize the illegitimate. More importantly, the parliament matters because it reveals how the patronage and clientele networks of the Syrian government have evolved during time. Throughout the past decade of conflict, Syria’s parliament has effectively morphed into an open space for candidates to contest positions of influence, clientelism, and social status. Alongside those who hail from prominent families or tribal clans, parliamentary membership consists of rising businessmen and entrepreneurs, all of whom are appointed as a token of appreciation for their services to the regime.

 

This study is divided into three sections. The first discusses how gaining parliamentary membership is dependent on being appointed rather than elected through a democratic process. The second section analyzes the major changes of this year's election in comparison to previous ones. Finally, we argue that while the significance of these changes remains minimal in the grand scheme of things, identifying them can help to better understand the regime’s strategy for consolidating its power in the upcoming 2021 elections and the years thereafter. It's worth noting that much of this work uses background information on the country’s latest 250 MPs collected using social media, activist connections, and various news sources. We also draw on relevant research, including that from the Middle East Directions[1] and Omran for Strategic Studies[2] papers (see footnotes). Due to the nature of these sources, we do not guarantee the correctness of all information. Nonetheless, it provides analysts and policymakers alike with a thorough insight into the Syrian parliament.

2- Appointments Not Elections

 

In this paper, we argue that the process of becoming an MP in Syria’s parliament is dependent on appointment rather than election. First, voting irregularities and outright electoral fraud have been systemic and widespread throughout the country. Notable examples include the presence of fraudulent ballots, inaccurate numbers of votes, and ballot stuffing. In the most recent election, Aleppo and its environs achieved particular notoriety when Sendos Marwadi’s name was struck off the ballot at the very last minute to make way for regime favorites such as Hussam Qaterji. Meanwhile, other candidates were spontaneously added to ballot papers as part of “general orders by voter commission officials” at various polling stations. Additionally, the absence of state-wide cross-checking mechanisms freed individuals to cast multiple votes, leading to widespread ballot stuffing. At least five polling stations in Aleppo and Deir al-Zor were subsequently forced to conduct recounts after the number of ballots exceeded the number of registered voters.

Second, the official turnout rate did not reflect the much smaller proportion of the population that actually voted. The Syrian Interior and Justice Ministries stated that 6.22 million people voted in the 2020 election, a turnout of 33%. Syria’s current population is nearly 17.5 million, seven million of whom live in areas outside regime control where voting was virtually non-existent. This leaves a population of nearly 10 million in regime-held areas. If around 6 million of these people were of voting age, turnout would then need to have been over 100%. Clearly, the agency responsible did not even attempt to make its official figures convincing. The fiction was confirmed by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)’s claim that its three candidates received votes totaling over 1.5 million[3]. On official figures, these three would have received around 24%[4] of all votes, while the remaining 247 candidates received 76% between them.

 

Finally, numerous reports indicate that state security services oversaw the vetting process even before the election date, meaning that only hardcore loyalists appeared on the ballot. For all the above reasons, we use the term appointed instead of elected to refer to members of the Syrian Parliament throughout the rest of the study.

3- Significant developments in the 2020 cycle

3.1 Lower appetite for joining parliament

 

The 2020 election cycle differed from the previous one in several notable respects. Firstly, far fewer ordinary citizens registered as candidates. In contrast to the 2,649 candidates who remained in the race on the 2016 election day, only 1,658 had been registered by July 19th, 2020 – a decrease of 37.4%. Several reasons lay behind this drop in registrations. Previously, Ba’athist MPs enjoyed government subsidies such as free housing, accommodation, and a complimentary automobile. Such incentives were scrapped for incoming party MPs due to the deteriorating economic situation in the country, with the Syrian pound losing 70% of its value since the start of 2020. The lack of financial incentives limited the appeal of a parliamentary position, except for those seeking a seat to leverage it for business gains.

 

Citizens were obviously less motivated to engage in the electoral process, even by the regime’s own measures. A range of estimates, including those on pro-government websites, put the actual turnout at no more than 10%, which came partly from compulsory voting measures imposed on state employees, university students, and even members of the regime’s military units. While the widespread claims of a lower appetite for voting are anecdotal, they partially reflect the overarching disappointment of the Syrian public in regard to the broader political and economic situation within regime-held areas. As one survey respondent claimed: ‘’There's no need for me to vote because not a single candidate represents the people...they all just represent themselves’’. The behavior of Syrians over the past few months shows near-total disregard to COVID-related social distancing measures, suggesting the pandemic is likely to have played only a minor role in the low turnout.

 

3.2 Fallout due to Voter Fraud

The evidence of voter fraud and election irregularities as discussed above were nothing new within the Syrian context. However, this year's cycle was distinguished by the relatively high levels of public critique directed towards the regime by former loyalists, with many prominent ex-parliamentarians voicing their dissent via social media. Such actions were unthinkable a couple of years ago, indicating that fear of the regime among Syrians may be starting to recede.

 

One notable example of dissent is that of the former MP for Aleppo, Fares Shehabi, who until recently was head of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce. After surprisingly losing his parliamentary seat in July, he took to Facebook to express his frustration. Claiming to be subjected to a ‘’malicious plot’’, he remarked that if he had “lost in transparent and clean elections, it would have been different”. He added: “The message was clear: blind obedience to the growing system of corruption or exclusion and punishment”. Shehabi’s Facebook posts have since been deleted. Borween Ibrahim, a prominent Kurdish woman, and leader of the Youth and Justice Party provides another example. She too lashed out on social media, stating that the rigging process commenced at 6 am on election day which saw her delegates repeatedly ejected from polling stations. Despite bringing over 1000 voters, she reported receiving only 250 votes - a blatant sign of corruption in her eyes. Unlike Shehabi, she refrained from deleting her online tantrum, threatened to stage protests, and was subsequently arrested by regime authorities.

3.3 Changes in ethnic representation

The 2020 parliamentary elections saw four[5] Armenians admitted into the Syrian legislature for the first time since 1947. This had a multitude of strategic functions for the al-Assad regime. First, it aimed to improve ties with the Armenian state, with whom Damascus shares a common enemy – Turkey. Both states have maintained strong diplomatic relations throughout the Syrian conflict, not least due to Russian mediation. In February 2019, Yerevan sent a non-combat military unit to Syria, whose 83 members included de-mining experts, security personnel, and medical workers. The unit assisted with aid distribution and mine-clearing operations in Aleppo, which has the highest proportion of Armenian diaspora in the country. Secondly, the appointment of Armenian MPs was a symbolic reward for the Armenian community’s support of the regime throughout the ten-year conflict. According to Serdar Korucu, author of a book on the Armenian diaspora in Aleppo, ‘’Most Armenians in Syria think there is no better option than Assad’’. He adds that the Orthodox Christian community fears the consequences of removing the Syrian president, a concern also voiced by other religious minorities. Finally, upholding ethnic diversity in the Syrian parliament boosts the regime’s narrative around inclusiveness, tolerance, and modernity, sustaining its self-constructed persona as guardian of ethnic minority rights.

 

Syria’s large Kurdish minority also experienced symbolic gains within the 2020 cycle. The number of Kurdish MPs rose slightly from three in 2016 to six in 2020[6]. However, as in the previous election, the regime ensured that none of the newly appointed MPs had any significant community clout. In a clear act of tokenism, it excluded Kurdish community leaders from their Northeastern heartland and installed insignificant figures instead. Despite the minor electoral gain, as the second-largest[7] ethnic group in Syria, Kurdish representation remains significantly marginalized. The decades-long oppression of Kurds by successive Syrian governments continues.

 

3.4 Changes in religious representation

 

Druze with close ties to the regime

Religious minorities such as the Druze were among the biggest losers of this election. While their share of MPs remained largely stable, going from nine seats in 2016 to eight[8] in 2020, this masks the significant changes that occurred among representatives of the Druze community, particularly in their provincial capital, As-Suwayda. Except for Nashaat al-Atrash of the People’s Party, who also hails from the influential al-Atrash clan, all other Druze MPs of the previous electoral cycle were de-selected prior to the election. Six of the seven newly incumbent MPs are hardcore Ba’ath loyalists, with at least one[9] a militia leader accused of committing war crimes. In addition, the regime appointed a new governor who previously occupied the same role in the Quneitra region and is part of the Central Command of the Ba’ath Party. This move indicates the unlikelihood of tangible change in the As-Suwayda governorate and comes at a time of significant turmoil across the province.

 

Earlier this year, As-Suwayda’s provincial capital was rocked by significant protests in response to the deteriorating economic situation in the region. The widespread replacement of parliamentary delegates with figures linked to the military and Ba’athist apparatus indicates that the regime is committed to cracking down on the protests. This is likely to further escalate struggles between the regime and locals from the region as exemplified by the recent clashes between the Russian-backed 5th Corps units and the Rijal al-Karama Druze militia which left dozens dead and injured.

Alawites, Sunnis, and Other Religious Groups

Meanwhile, there was a marginal rise in the number of Alawite, Sunni, and Murshidi MPs, from 40, 165, and one in 2016 to 42, 169, and three, respectively in 2020[10]. Yet these increases came at the expense of other minorities[11], as the overall number of Christian representatives dropped from 22 in the previous cycle to just 18 in 2020.[12] It's worth noting that such changes are not large enough to signal any major shift in the regime's policy towards these religious groups.

 

3.5 The Decline of the National Progressive Front Facade

Additionally, notable changes occurred to the National Progressive Front (NPF) following the 2020 elections. The NPF was founded in 1972 as a coalition of political parties following the rise of Hafez al-Assad, providing a façade of ostensible political plurality in the Ba’athist-dominated political system. In practice, however, all of the participating parties were marginalized and had their political leadership co-opted by the regime and its security apparatus. Nonetheless, the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 forced the regime to take a more constructive approach by implementing cosmetic changes to the country’s Parties law and the 2012 constitution, which re-introduced a multiparty system - on paper at least - for the first time in over four decades. With its Intent focused on survival, the regime’s tactics during the 2012 and 2016 elections permitted other political parties to conduct popular mobilization and recruitment drives for various militias allied with Damascus. This granted a slightly higher degree of autonomy to some parties, allowing them to engage with constituents at a grassroots level. However, after swaying the military situation in its favor, the regime began reversing many of its initial concessions, starting with the parliament. This coincided with the regime's attempt to rehabilitate the Ba’ath party, whose standing within Syrian society had diminished considerably as a result of the ongoing civil war.

 

While the number of NPF political parties represented in parliament (excluding the Ba’ath Party) increased from six in 2016 to eight in 2020, their membership remained unchanged from the 2016 parliament with 16 MPs. Only six [13] of the 16 members affiliated with other parties were active in the previous election cycle. This approach indicates a dual purpose. By slightly increasing the number of political parties in parliament, the regime has maintained the facade of ‘political pluralism’ while simultaneously diluting the symbolic influence of these parties. This is reflected by the fact that the Ba’ath party is the only component of the NPF which has managed to gain more than three seats in this year’s cycle.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party the Biggest Loser

 

A notable example of such is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which ended up as the biggest loser of the 2020 election. Long considered to be the strongest political force after the Ba’ath party, its representation within parliament shrank from seven seats in 2016 to just three in 2020. However, the decline of the parliamentary party is part of a bigger picture associated with the regime’s zero-sum game of establishing itself as the sole victor after a decade of conflict.

 

In fact, the SSNP’s decline can be attributed to a variety of causes. First, the party’s cross-sectarian popular base, strong mobilizational capacity, robust organizational structure, and secular doctrine had increased its ideological appeal across religious minorities – including many young Alawite men. The diminished role of the Ba’athist dogma within Syrian society created a vacuum that the SSNP seemed ready to exploit, albeit on a grassroots level. Since minority groups are also the regime’s core constituency, al-Assad was forced to act swiftly to curb SSNP influence.

 

Second, the SSNP was further marginalized by fallout from the Makhlouf-Assad controversy. The powerful Makhlouf family – most notably Hafez al-Assad’s wife and former first lady, Anisa Makhlouf – have long been seen as influential SSNP supporters. Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin and a key financier of the SSNP General Secretariat (Amana) faction[14], held an ‘’absolute belief in the ideology of the Syrian [Social Nationalist] Party" and funded the party’s armed wing, Eagles of the Whirlwind (EOW). The EOW fought alongside government forces and acted as a defensive auxiliary unit in areas of substantial SSNP presence, such as Homs, Hama & al-Suwayda. Makhlouf’s al-Bustan charity enabled the Party to successfully field candidates in the 2012 & 2016 parliamentary elections, even landing a ministerial post in mid-2012[15]. However, al-Assad’s determination to sideline Makhlouf led to the forced dissolution of the Amana faction in October 2019, dealing a massive blow to the SSNP. Finally, the party’s substantial ties to Russia - particularly its armed wing - posed another perceived threat to the regime. In November 2019, authorities launched a crackdown against EOW training camps in the Homs & Lattakia governorates, forcing it to withdraw its heavy weaponry after the integration of the EOW into the Russian-backed 5th Corps.

 

To counter this increased suppression, many SSNP candidates simply abstained from running in this year’s election. Others nominated themselves as independents in rural Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and other regions. Meanwhile, candidates such as Maria Saadeh, whose family are prominent SSNP adherents, lost their seats.

3.6 The Ba’ath Party: Down But not Gone

As noted above, the dysfunctional and dwindling appeal of the Ba’ath party to the public has been a major concern for the regime during the conflict. Under Hafez al-Assad, the Ba’ath party’s function shifted from mobilizing and indoctrinating the masses to that of an over-inflated administrative bureaucracy, with real power concentrated in the hands of the president and the intelligence services. Following the rise of Bashar, this phenomenon was only exacerbated. Over time, traditional career Ba’athists were replaced by those with family or kinship ties to the presidential palace. The war added crony businessmen and war profiteers to that list. Many of these ran on independent tickets (on paper at least) for the past three parliamentary elections. These factors further contributed to the party’s decline.

 

The removal of Article 8 from the 2012 Syrian Constitution, which stipulates that the Ba’ath Party is the ‘’leader of the state and society’’, is reflected neither in the recent election results nor the composition of the 2020 cabinet. In fact, over the past five parliamentary elections, there has been a steady increase of Ba’athist representation within parliament since 2003[16]. In 2020, the Ba’ath party registered a whopping 66.4% (167 seats)[17] victory. Meanwhile, the remaining 33.2% was distributed between Independents who secured 26.8% (67 seats)[18] of the vote, while other NPF parties received a mere 6.4% (16 seats)[19].

 

The absolute dominance of the Ba’ath party prevents parliament from fulfilling the legislative duties it was established to fulfill. According to Article 122 of the Internal System, laws can be passed by an absolute majority, provided the number of approvals is not less than one-third of MPs. Even if independent MPs were ever to oppose Ba’athist wishes, they would not have the numbers required to pass any legislation whatsoever. Other legislative actions, such as proposing a motion for the indictment of the President on charges of high treason, require two-thirds of approvals in parliament, a majority only available to the ruling Ba’ath party. Similarly, the newly formed Cabinet under PM Hussein Arnous is dominated by Ba’ath members, with 25 of 30 Ministers (83.3%) from the ruling party. Their number includes high-ranking members of the regional and central command of the party, many of whom retained their posts in sensitive ministries such as Foreign Affairs & Defense. The recent election cycle produced nine members of Damascus’s 50-member delegation in the Constitutional Committee negotiating a new constitution for the country under the auspices of the United Nations.

 

The growing disparity between the party’s diminishing appeal in society, and its representation within parliament and the state in general is growing increasingly apparent—the share of Ba’athist MPs has grown steadily since 2003[20]. The lack of viable alternatives has forced the regime to attempt to revive the Ba’ath party, at least in theory. But such attempts have only led to increased party dominance within the parliament and cabinet, notably failing to engage the populations of regime-held territories whose unprecedented economic challenges remain unaddressed. The real decision-making process however, remains solely vested within the executive branch. As such, the likelihood of the Ba’athist doctrine trickling down to resonate with the broader population remains low. The party has effectively morphed into an empty shell of its past. 

3.7 Militarization of the Parliament: Ba’athists in Camouflage, Islamists, and War Criminals

As in the previous election cycle, the People’s Council reflects the regime’s drive to militarize the political sphere. This ethos entails, in Assad’s words, “absolute respect for hierarchy, executing orders blindly, and unlimited patience and resilience’’. The militarization is exemplified by the fact that 31[21] appointed MPs in the 2020 election have been affiliated with pro-regime militias, sometimes occupying leading roles within them. It is also worth noting that at least 16 former generals were appointed to parliament, of which 13 entered the council for the very first time. The fact that the majority are Ba’athists indicates the regime hopes they will revive the party’s role within the conflict, as well as in politics.

 

Notable examples of prominent Ba’athist leaders appointed to this year’s council include Bassem Sudan (Lattakia), the leader of the Ba’ath Brigades of Syria since 2013. First appointed to parliament in 2016, Bassem has been a member of the party's central command since 2017. Another is Isam Nabhan Subai, the Ba’ath Brigades leader in Hama, appointed to parliament for the first time this year. The higher ratio of militia leaders and army personnel, some of whom are accused of committing war crimes, may fulfill a dual purpose. On the one hand, it promotes the regime’s militaristic ethos within Syrian society, and on the other, it rewards those who have done most of Assad’s dirty work.

 

Furthermore, It’s also worth noting that at least 17 independent MPs[22] are leaders or affiliates of militias. A key incentive for many militia leaders and warlords has been to legitimize their position within Syrian society. Formerly known as oil smugglers or militia leaders, they can now rehabilitate their social standing as “respectable” members of parliament. Additionally, according to information obtained via email from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 54 MPs (24 of whom are affiliated with militias) are suspected of committing war crimes or crimes against humanity.

 

The 2020 cycle also saw the appointment of a former jihadist—the former ‘Al-Nusra Front’ leader Madloul Omar Al-Aziz, whose activities in Deir al-Zor between 2012 and 2015 earned his nickname of ‘The Slaughter’. He ended up siding with the regime, which in return, permitted him to establish a local militia that fought alongside the Syrian army and tracked down wanted individuals for the security services. It is also worth noting that members of MP Amer Taysir Khiti’s extended family maintain extensive ties with the Islamist Jaysh al-Islam militia.

3.8 Dependent Independents: Businessmen & Cronies

This election cycle also altered the profile of independent MPs. For the 2nd successive election, the share of independents reached its lowest since the spike in their representation under Hafez al-Assad in 1990. Back then, Syria had begun to recover from a decade of political and economic turmoil. In response, the leadership encouraged a broader spectrum of independents to run in a show of relative political openness. This was aimed at broadening the representation of members within the commercial bourgeoisie, as well as Sunni clerics and tribal groups from the east and center of the country.

 

While the number of independents within this year’s legislature did not change significantly, increasing only from 63 seats in 2016 to 65[23] in 2020, they were drawn from quite different social groups. The previous two election cycles were largely driven by the regime's survival instinct and the necessity of securing a decisive military victory on the ground. MPs that were viewed as contributing to Assad’s war effort were granted priority access to parliament in these elections, including those that ran on an independent ticket. Yet as the Syrian war morphed into a frozen conflict, the regime's priorities began to shift accordingly. A deteriorating economy, a currency in freefall, and crippling U.S sanctions became the prime concern. In response, the regime began emphasizing the need to incorporate crony businessmen and warlords, most of whom had amassed fortunes as a result of illicit activities during the war.

 

This explains why 44[24] MPs (17.6% of the total number of seats) in the 2020 election were businessmen, of which only 15 managed to retain their seats from the previous cycle. Furthermore, of these 44 businessmen, only 31 were independents. This coincided with Damascus's attempts to conceal the changes in its social base and patronage networks as if it was ‘business as usual’. Thus, some prominent businessmen were surprisingly sidelined in this election, with many notable examples. One such was Mohamad Hamsho, an MP for Damascus since 2003, the General Secretariat for the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and a close ally of Bashar’s brother, Maher. Another was Fares Shehabi, representing Aleppo in parliament since 2016 and Head of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce since 2009. It has been suggested that both Hamsho & Shehabi had their respective seats withdrawn due to ongoing allegations of corruption in an effort by the regime to remove ‘problematic’ candidates. Other explanations are equally plausible. While Fares Shehabi was increasingly critical of the government during these extremely volatile times, Hamsho might have been cast aside to make room for new faces untargeted by western sanctions.

 

At the same time, however, other influential candidates successfully retained their seats. Among them was Hussam Katerji, who first entered parliament in 2016, having amassed a fortune in the preceding five years by exploiting the market in oil and grain smuggling controlled by the Islamic State and the regime. Another high-profile example is Samer al-Debs, who established numerous packaging factories in Syria and supported the regime’s attempt to evade economic sanctions through his heavily-subsidized import-export business. He is also the current chairman of the Damascus Chamber of Industry.

Asma al-Assad also has a say

 

The sidelining of Rami Makhlouf has enabled the rise of a new major actor within the regime's inner circle: Syria’s first lady and Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad. The 2020 elections resulted in the appointment of nine activists from the charity and development sector, supervised by the first lady, as well as MPs with strong ties to the presidential palace. Six of the nine[25] newly elected MPs fall under the direct auspices of Asma, and almost all seem connected with the Syrian Trust and Development charity controlled by the first lady. Independents who gained seats through their ties to the presidential palace include Humam Masuti, the partner of prominent presidential palace employee Lina Kinaye, and Zain al-Abedin Abbas, whose wife’s father is the Minister for Presidential Affairs. The first lady’s increasing influence in parliament indicates she is likely to continue to play a key role in the Syrian political arena.

 

3.9 Foreign Assets in Parliament: The Case of Iran & Russia

Russia and Iran, the regime's main two allies, were only minimally involved in the 2016 election. While Iran reportedly backed eight electoral candidates in the previous election, Russia had no MPs with obvious ties to the Kremlin. In contrast, the influence of both states was slightly more evident in this year's vote, with Tehran more prominently involved than Moscow.

 

Increased Iranian involvement in this year’s election was reflected in the rise in the number of Iran-affiliated MPs from eight in 2016 to 11 in 2020. The vast majority of these represented the Aleppo Regions electorate (9 MP), followed by Deir el-Zor (1 MP) and Raqqa (1 MP). These seats correspond with areas where Iran maintains a significant military presence, not only in Aleppo but also east of the Euphrates in Deir al-Zor, where the Imam Ali Base near the city of Al-Bukamal was recently completed. Furthermore, at least six pro-Iranian MPs in the Syrian parliament were affiliated with militias loyal to both Iran and the regime's security apparatus.

 

Compared to Iran, Russia’s influence in this year's election cycle was more restrained and less visible. The Kremlin backed about six MPs benefiting from Moscow’s military involvement in the country, such as Abdelhamid al-Taher and Talal al-Khalil from the al-Hasakah constituency, or those with ties to Brig. Gen. Suhail Al-Hassan[26] such as Fouad Aldani from Idlib. All these MPs are affiliated in some way with militias and state security services. However, their presence does not demonstrate Russian political interference in the Syrian Parliament. As such, it is difficult to conclusively state whether Moscow’s minimal involvement in this year's election stemmed purely from its lack of interest, or whether it indicated the regime's effort to sideline Russia’s political involvement in Syria’s legislature.

 

Overall, however, while the influence of both foreign actors increased in the 2020 election, it was more symbolic than genuinely significant.

 

3.10 Gender Inequality & Representation in Parliament

Another noteworthy change was the representation of women in the 2020 parliament. The number of women MPs has steadily increased over recent decades in an attempt to boost the regime's self-proclaimed progressive persona. From only four MPS in 1973, 21 women were elected in 1990, increasing to over 30 in every year since 2003 under Bashar al-Assad’s drive to project a modern public image. However, of the 200 female candidates in 2020, only 27 (10.8% of all seats) [27] managed to secure a seat in this year's parliament, the lowest rate since at least 2003 and down from 32 in 2016. Within the newly formed Syrian cabinet, women are even more poorly represented, holding only three seats (10% only) out of 30.

 

Ironically, all appointed women MPs in the 2020 cycle shared the feature of not engaging in any form of feminist behavior, which  the regime perceives to be a threat. By barring candidates who engage in feminist activities, the council can project a masculine version of representation, one underpinned by the bravery of soldiers and their sacrifices.

4- Little Impact in the Grand Scheme of Things

The 2020 parliamentary elections were conducted at a time of limited military confrontation. In doing so , the regime attempted to shield itself from the deteriorating economic situation which has long impacted every sector of Syria’s society, including its own base. According to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), some 83.4% of Syrians are currently living below the global poverty line, in comparison to just 28% in 2010. Alongside the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this constitutes a set of unprecedented challenges that could potentially pose a direct threat to Assad’s rule. Anticipating such challenges, the regime framed this year’s election as “business as usual”, thereby attempting to restore calmness domestically, project authority abroad, and shatter the hopes of all those hoping for some sort of political reform to occur.

Overall, the electoral microdynamics described above were significant in many ways, yet relatively marginal to the bigger picture. The reality on the ground meant that less has changed than remained the same. For starters, unquestionable loyalty to Assad and his establishment continued to determine which MPs were (re)admitted to parliament. An advanced level of education, political experience, and commitment to the Syrian people remain qualifications of secondary importance for the country’s lawmakers.

 

The domination of the Ba’ath party –despite the removal of Article 8 in the constitution– and the securitization of the council signify likely themes of next year's Presidential elections. Widespread electoral fraud has also highlighted the regime's lack of concern with legitimizing its actions, which has surprised even some of its most vocal supporters. In dealing with the elections as if the regime has already won the war, Assad and his inner circle hope to send a clear message that they are not obliged to make any constructive changes to their behavior. This “Winner Takes All” approach which marked the 2020 election cycle is just one example of the regime's intent to advance the status quo and consolidate its rule even further.

 

Indeed, it is quite clear that the current composition of the parliament has fulfilled its primary objective: namely, to forge a group of loyalist parliamentarians who are inextricably linked to the regime, and whose personal survival is solely dependent on the preservation of Bashar al-Assad at its helm.

Disclaimer

This sources for this study included news sites dealing with Syrian affairs (pro-government and anti-government), social media sites and accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube among others), and the websites of both human rights organizations and official news agencies. Relevant academic studies from research centers such as that of Omran and Middle East Directions were also utilized. While we cross-checked all sources, the claims on which they are based should be treated with reasonable caution due to the sheer scarcity of data in some cases. For instance, the widespread boycott of elections made accessing reliable information increasingly difficult and many candidates were referred to by a pseudonym or surname. It was challenging to distinguish these from the identical names of local celebrities, artists, athletes and musicians prioritized by search engines. Furthermore, because many were appointed on the basis of regime affiliation, they were not required to run an electoral campaign of any sort, making information on them extremely scarce if not outright unavailable.

 

Finally, it's important to highlight the presence of inconsistencies between our data and the data provided by other studies. These arose from differences in the definitions of some variables such profession and ethnicity. We also needed to resolve contradictory information on objective variables, such as the number of NPF MPs. For example, while the Omran study cited 17 NPF members, this study and that of the Middle East Directions recorded 16. Because not all relevant variables for each MP were stated in previous studies (instead providing total shares for each variable), it was difficult to cross-check our claims.

Notes

[1] Elections in Wartime: The Syrian People’s Council (2016-2020)’ and ‘The Syrian People's Assembly Elections 2020: Towards a Shrinking Social Base of the Regime

 

[2]Baath democracy: 2020 elections and approaches to Consolidate Article 8

 

[3] The Three Fielded SSNP candidates, all of which secured a seat in Parliament, These are: 1) Nouhad Sama'an from Homs Governorate: 734,990 votes. 2) Samir Hajjar from Damascus Governorate: 673,226 votes. 3) Ahmad Merei from Aleppo Governorate:137,712 votes.

 

[4] 1.5 million out of 6.224 Million total votes casted equals approximately 24.1%.

 

[5] The Four Armenian MPs are: 1- Lucy Iskanyan (Aleppo) 2- Boutros Murjana (Aleppo) 3- Jirayr Reisian (Aleppo) 4- Noura Aresian (Damascus).

[6] The Six Kurdish MPs are: 1- Ammar Bekdash (Damascus) 2- Ismael al-Hajjo (Raqqa) 3- Alan Bakr (Aleppo) 4- Sameer al-Ayoubi (Damascus) 5- Abdelrahman Khalil (al-Hasakah) 6- Nidal al-Ellou (Raqqa)

[7] Kurds constitute around 10%, or two million, of Syria’s pre-war population.

[8] The Eight Druze MPs are: 1- Nassib Abu Mahmoud (As-Suwayda) 2- Muein Nassr (As-Suwayda) 3- Majd Abu Zaidan (As-Suwayda) 4- Faisal Jammoul (Rif Dimashq) 5- Rida al-Damqasi (Quneitra) 6- Khaled Kurbaj (As-Suwayda) 7- Hekmat Sallam (As-Suwayda) 8- Nashaat al-Atrash (As-Suwayda)

[9] Nassib Abu Mahmoud is said to be the leader of a militia and was previously the commander of the eleventh tank division and head of the General Inspection Authority of the Armed Forces. He participated in the military operations in Homs, Hama, and Idlib.

[10] See Interactive module for breakdown of MPs based on different religious sects & ethnicities.

[11] Number of Ismaili MP’s is unknown in this election cycle. The 2016 cycle had only 2 MPs of Ismaili background.

[12] Includes Christian Orthodox Armenians.

[13] See interactive module for breakdown of MPs who were part of the previous election cycle.

[14] The SSNP was up until recently divided into three branches, the Markaz, Intifada, and Amana Factions. The Markaz and Amana factions (The latter has now been disbanded) are closest to the Syrian Ba’athist regime and while the Intifada faction is small, it is allegedly gaining influence. For more information, see Christopher Soloman, Jesse MacDonald and Nick Grinstead, ‘’Eagles Riding the Storm of War: The Role of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’’, Policy Brief (The Hague: Clingendael Institute, January 2019), https://bit.ly/3eEkry6 

[15] The Ministry of National Reconciliation was headed by Dr. Ali Haider, up until its abolition in 2018.

[16] Share of Ba’athist seats in the past five parliamentary elections: 131 in 2003, 135 in 2007, 160 in 2012, 166 in 2016, and 168 in 2020

[17] See Interactive module for breakdown of Ba’athist MPs

[18] See Interactive module for breakdown of Independent MPs

[19] See Interactive module for breakdown of NPF party MPs

[20] Share of Ba’athist seats in the past five parliamentary elections: 131 in 2003, 135 in 2007, 160 in 2012, 166 in 2016, and 167 in 2020

[21] See interactive module for breakdown of individuals who are affiliated with Militias.

[22] Based on the data collected by the authors in this study. See interactive module for the breakdown of these MPs.

[23] See Interactive Module for breakdown of Independent MPs

[24] See Interactive module for breakdown of Businessmen in parliament

[25] While seven out of the nine candidates are Ba’athist members, this affiliation is tenuous as they do not hold any significant clout within the party and come primarily from educational, medical, and charitable (such as the Syrian Red Crescent) backgrounds. The remaining two MPs are both independents. Additionally, all but one candidate was part of a previous election cycle.

[26] Brig. Gen Suhail al-Hassan is the leader of the 25th Special Forces Division which is part of the Russian backed 5th Corps.

 

[27] For breakdown of MPs by gender see interactive module

Acknowledgment

We thank Ayman Abdel Nour for identifying the religion and ethnicity of all MPs. We also thank Molham al-Jundi for his excellent research assistance and Agnes Favier for her feedback on an earlier draft of the study.

 

* Samy Akil is a Syrian analyst originally from the city of Aleppo and currently a postgraduate student at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS) at The Australian National University. He is also locally engaged at a Canberra-based diplomatic mission.