Today, Syria will have a presidential election, but what role would Syrian refugees, internally displaced persons, and the diaspora play in this process? To begin with, the conditions to hold free and fair elections in Syria currently do not exist. There are several logistical, constitutional, and security impediments that do not allow for displaced Syrians to neither vote freely, nor run for office. The basic requirements for elections as defined in the Geneva Communiqué and Security Council Resolution 2254 do not exist and have not been discussed yet. Therefore, unless a politically neutral environment that protects and codifies the right to truly vote without fear or intimidation, guarantees freedom of expression and of the press, freedom of movement, and allows and encourages freedom of association (including political parties) exists, no legitimate elections can be held in Syria.
The Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity (SACD) has published a briefing that discusses the views of displaced Syrians (including internally displaced persons, refugees, and diaspora) about the obstacles that need to be overcome for any future elections––which would follow a meaningful political agreement with strong international guarantees––to be seen as credible by displaced Syrians. It also outlines some of the minimum conditions that need to be fulfilled in order for free and fair elections to be considered possible.
Moreover, one of the main impediments to free and fair elections in Syria are the security conditions. SACD and several human rights organizations have repeatedly documented continuing violence and systematic repression against Syrians in areas controlled by the regime. However, the dim security reality is not limited to the regime-controlled areas, as Syria has become divided into regime-controlled areas, opposition-held areas, and SDF-controlled areas, which all suffer from assassinations, car bombs, and explosions targeting civilians.
According to SACD reports, 67% of Syrians who returned to regime-held areas did not feel safe, while 51% of the respondents who remained in regime areas since the beginning of the conflict had the same sense of insecurity. Even in areas that signed reconciliation agreements, such as Daraa and Eastern Ghouta, arrests continue against opponents of Assad’s regime, not to mention the harassment and extortion of residents (often out of revenge) and their deprivation of their rights and property.
Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) has also revealed documents proving how regime intelligence services systematically monitor activities of Syrians abroad, and often use their hold on their families in Syria to punish them for criticizing the regime.
As for constitutional obstacles, the Syrian constitution stipulates in paragraph (5) of Article 84 that “the presidential candidate must have resided in Syria for at least 10 consecutive years prior to his/her candidacy.” Accordingly, about six million refugees who were forcibly displaced outside Syria since 2011 are immediately excluded from running for office, not to mention the need to get the approval of 35 members of Parliament for any candidate's nomination to be accepted.
Under current laws, Syrians abroad can only vote at Syrian embassies, and according to the electoral register approved by the Syrian regime this can only occur with a valid Syrian passport with a regular exit stamp, which most displaced Syrians do not have.
A set of other challenges facing refugees must also be addressed, such as identity cards needed to register to vote, especially in countries such as Lebanon, where a high percentage of Syrian refugees are not allowed to be registered through the UNHCR nor with the Lebanese state. In addition, there have been practices and pressures on Syrians in Lebanon to force them to participate in the Syrian presidential elections for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad by exploiting illegal conditions of refugees and their harsh living conditions. SACD conducted a survey on 500 displaced Syrians and found that 85.5 percent indicated they do not trust that elections in Syria will be fair, while 82% said they would not feel safe to vote at embassies. However, the case of internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Syria is even more complex, especially those who live in areas outside of regime control where it is impossible to vote in any elections organized by the regime.
Hence, prior to any free and fair elections in Syria, there should be constitutional and legal reforms in order to ensure the free and fair participation of all Syrians, both within and outside Syria.
Last but not least, the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrian refugees requires a safe environment whose conditions do not exist at the moment. SACD has published an extensive report where displaced Syrians clearly state their conditions for a safe return. The top five return conditions included action on security services, political conditions, fate of detainees, general security conditions, and economic conditions. The dismantling and reforming of security services was the top condition for 83% of the respondents, while 82% demanded full and unconditional release of all detainees, 75% demanded a new constitution, and, finally, 74% stated they will only return once a comprehensive political solution that guarantees a safe environment is established.