In 2014, Assad did not win an election.
If political opponents of Assad would be sent to jail for saying the sieges or barrel bombs are a war crime, then the electoral process was rigged to shut out Assad's real opponents.
Supporters of Assad, whether they are powerful nations such as Russia and Iran, or individuals, invariably rely on the 2014 Presidential "elections" in Syria as the cornerstone of the regime's legitimacy. Assad himself often points to these "elections" to buttress his claim as the country's rightful, legitimate leader.
But the truth is that, like all previous elections under the Assad family's control, the 2014 "elections" and Assad's "victory" were rigged and illegitimate.
The way the regime rigs elections is not in the ultimate count. It is the process -- from eligibility to campaign restrictions -- that is rigged. The process is intentionally designed to be Byzantine in its complexity so that questioning the process is exhausting and arid. But unfortunately it is difficult to understand the extent to which the process in 2014 was a farce without delving into details. These details will probably bore most readers. Indeed, journalists that have interviewed Assad seem to not even know about them. And that is precisely what the regime desires: to deflect all attention from the totally undemocratic nature of the whole election by layering it with Byzantine complexity. This permits the regime to focus only on the (pre-determined) outcome of Assad's victory.
The commencement of this maze is the Syrian Constitution, which requires that a proposed candidate for the Syrian Presidency must secure the support of 15% of the members of Parliament: Syrian Constitution, article 85(3).
It may sound relatively easy.
However, the Syrian Parliament is stacked by the President himself through a maze of constitutional and legislative barriers, appointments and prohibitions.
To start with, the Syrian Constitution reserves more than 50% of Parliamentary seats for persons who are deemed independent of party affiliation and are "of labor and farmers": Constitution, article 60(2) and the Elections Law, article 19.
Who determines whether a person is of "labor" or "farmer"? Assad appointees. It is done through committees appointed by a Commission. The Commission's members are appointed for the task by the President or the Provincial Governor, an appointee of the President: Elections Law, article 13. If a Committee rules that a potential candidate is not of "labor" or "farmer" then the only avenue to appeal leads to another committee appointed by Assad (and which can be dismissed by Assad).
Of course, there is no independent judiciary in Syria; Assad is the head of the Supreme Judicial Committee, which oversees functioning of the judiciary: Constitution, articles 132, 133. Even the judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Syria's highest court, do not have tenure: Constitution, article 143.
The result is that Assad will always have, and has always had, a majority of the seats in Parliament.
Another advantage of having more than 50% of members of Parliament allocated to representatives "labor" or "farmers" is that such members are not members of a political party. They must therefore withstand the pressures of the executive branch, the Ba'ath Party and Assad's ruthless and brutal security services as lone individuals.
The "non-reserved" seats in Parliament can be contested by individuals and political parties. But a raft of laws makes it impossible for any real democratic will to be expressed.
For political parties to even remain legally registered, the party must abide by Syrian laws: Parties Law, article 31. That's not unreasonable in a democratic environment. But in Syria, the purpose of this law is to crush criticism. It works like this: in Syria it is a criminal offense to make statements that "weaken national sentiment": Syrian Penal Code, section 307. This is one of the "catch-all crimes" that stifle any criticism of Assad. Thus, it would be an offense in Syria if an Assad rival, or any Syrian, says that the siege of Madaya was a war crime. It would be political suicide, and likely actual suicide, to say that Assad, as Commander-in-Chief ordering the siege, was committing war crimes. Similarly, to say that Assad has destroyed the country would be an offense. Such statements would also result in de-registration of the candidate or the political party (and it would also land a candidate person in the torture chambers of Assad's notorious secret services).
The consequence of all the above is that, throughout the 2012 Parliamentary election, not a single candidate or political party criticized Assad's policies or destruction of the country. As if not a single Syrian thinks the tragedy of Syria is Assad's fault. Not one. Needless to say, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees that would think so. But nevertheless, not one candidate uttered that Syria had become a hereditary dictatorship instead of a republic, though so many Syrians hold this view.
After the 2012 Parliamentary elections no member of the Parliament has ever criticized Assad's policies or destruction of the country or his sieges and starvation of Syrian civilians. A handful of Parliamentarians elected in 2012, such as Ikhlas al-Badawi, fled Syria because they felt Assad had destroyed the country. But not one criticized Assad from within Parliament or even from within Syria.
Another way in which all political debate is controlled is the Media Law, which prohibits media organizations raising issues that concern the Presidency (i.e., Assad): Media Law, article 26. And it is noteworthy that, since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011, there has not been one analyst or one news article on Syrian television critical of Assad's. Not one.
There are many similar provisions. The Media Law does not permit a media outlet to use information on military operations, which is inconsistent with the information from the Ministry of Defence: Media Law, article 26. Since Assad denies even using barrel bombs, Syrian media outlets would be committing criminal offenses if they ran stories in which opposition political parties criticized civilian casualties from Assad's barrel-bomb attacks.
Another constraint on possible rivals to Assad is that a candidate must have resided in Syria for the preceding 10 years: Constitution, article 84(5). Just another law to ensure that well respected opposition figures such as Moaz Khatib had no possibility of being nominated. Ironically, had that law been passed at any time prior to 2010, Bashar Assad would not have been entitled to be Syrian President, since Bashar had lived in London until his older brother and the heir apparent to the Assad throne was killed in a car crash. But I overlook that the Syrian Constitution was amended overnight to reduce the Constitutional minimum age from 40 years to 34 years so that Bashar could assume the throne.
So that is the background and nature of the Parliament, which in 2014 had the sacred honor and duty of nominating candidates for President. The overwhelming majority of members of Parliament nominated Assad. For the sake of appearances, two other candidates were also nominated. One of those nominees had been appointed by Assad as a Minister. Neither candidate had ever publicly criticized Assad prior to, or after, their nomination. These were to be Assad's rivals.
During the "Presidential campaign," there were no televised debates. There was no criticism by Assad's "opponents" of the unbelievable destruction wrought on Syria by Assad. Assad's rivals did not criticize sieges and starvation of Syrian civilians by the army. Indeed, Assad's opponents affirmed that Assad's conduct of the war was the correct policy. At times Assad's "opponents" even spoke of his wise handling of the crisis.
When it came time for voting, the regime's "democracy number crunchers" realized that the voting intentions of the 3.5+ million Syrian refugees could not be controlled. If the refugees could afford to put aside their daily trials, they could turn up to Syrian embassies in Lebanon and Jordan and lodge a protest vote of some sort. That would not look good. So another law was passed. This law provided that refugees who had departed Syria at checkpoints not controlled by the regime were not eligible to vote. Most refugees who escape Syria other than through official crossings are fleeing Assad and are vehemently anti-Assad. So that took care of that segment of the population.
And if all of the above is not enough, there is always the secret service (the mukhabarat) that will torture to death any Syrian that criticizes Assad.
To the surprise of nobody, Assad then "won" the 2014 Presidential election -- and Syria lost again.