Assad should be allowed to run for office in an election as part of an effort to end the Syrian crisis with a democratic solution.

In March 2011, a segment of the Syrian population took to the streets in protest, demanding that Bashar Al-Assad and his government stand down. Very quickly, Western countries such as the UK and the USA, and other international powers began expressing their support for this “revolution” in Syria, as they had done with the wider Arab Spring. This unconditional backing from several countries resulted in the creation of several rebel groups in Syria, some of which are Islamist based, such as the Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and the Islamic Front. While some of these groups were formed by defected Syrian soldiers and officers, many fighters were not Syrian and had been sent to Syria by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

From the beginning and until now, the Syrian opposition is almost exclusively made up of Sunni Muslims. The other religious groups in Syria (Druze, Alawites, Shias, Christians, Jews, Atheists) either directly supported Assad’s government (e.g. joining the army or national defense force), or prefer him to the Islamist based opposition, whom many Syrians view as terrorists. It should also be noted that many Sunni Syrians did, and still do support Assad and his government.

Sectarian Conflict

Even though the Syrian conflict is often summarized as “Assad’s Alawite government fighting against an entirely Sunni opposition”, there is much more to it than that. First of all, while Bashar Al-Assad is an Alawite, many important figures in his government are members of other religions. For example, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem is a Sunni Muslim and is still loyal to Assad’s supposedly “Alawite government”. Furthermore, the Syrian prime minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, is also a Sunni Muslim and is in fact from the village of Jasim, in Deraa province (where protests first erupted in Syria.) This stresses the diversity of the Syrian government and their military forces. The Syrian armed forces also have many females in their ranks. Furthermore, 12% of the available seats in the Syrian national parliament are held by women, whereas Syria’s neighbor Lebanon only has a 3% rate. It compares to Jordan, were 12% of the available parliamentary seats are held by females.

The Syrian opposition is far less diverse than this, with many radical groups actively killing and discriminating based solely on religion. The existence of moderate rebels is questionable, but they clearly have very little power or influence in Syria, and even these moderate rebels are saturated with Sunni Muslims.

Contrary to popular belief, many Syrian Sunnis do in fact support the Syrian government, with some actively fighting alongside Druze, Alawite, Shia and Christian soldiers in the army and the national defense force.

Undemocratic Approach

Even though only a minority of Syrians was engaged in protests, many regional and world powers immediately deemed Assad and his government as illegitimate and demanded his downfall. A much more realistic and democratic approach (which can still be used now) is to work with the Syrian government to organize fair, legitimate, and independently monitored and verified elections, nation-wide. Currently, the Syrian government only controls around 30% of Syria, with around 60%-70% of the population living in government held areas. Therefore, other countries, including those who have previously opposed Assad and provided military support and funding to rebels, should now work with Assad and the Syrian armed forces to retake all of Syria.

This gives all Syrians a chance to choose which government they want to represent them and to run their country. Furthermore, this will also give the victor a sense of legitimacy. Therefore, if Bashar Al-Assad was to win the election, international sanctions would be lifted and the country and region would certainly be in a more stable condition.

The USA and Gulf countries should stop funding and supporting all of the rebel groups in Syria with immediate effect. However, moderate Syrian rebel groups may be able to assist the Syrian armed forces in retaking territory in Syria (in preparation for elections). This should be done in conjunction and under the supervision of the Syrian government and its armed forces.

Assad’s Punishment

Critics of the Syrian government believe that Assad should not be allowed to take part in the election. This is mainly because of the alleged war crimes carried out by the Syrian armed forces, particularly the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs. A barrel bomb is not an effective weapon, and any damage it inflicts on militants/targets is down to luck. They do suppress enemies and it is likely that they have assisted the Syrian army in holding onto territory and preventing groups such as Islamic State from seizing more land in Syria. However, the use of barrel bombs can still not be condoned.

Assad should be allowed to run for office in the election, and Syrians should be given the opportunity to “punish” him (by simply not voting for him). Forcing Assad out of power regardless of what Syrians want is undemocratic, and ruling him out of the election will inevitable prevent any political process taking place in Syria, leading to more destruction.