Members of the Syrian opposition will meet in Moscow today for a briefing on what was achieved at the Astana Conference on 23-25 January. They will be briefed on the ceasefire mechanism agreed upon in Kazakhstan by Russia, Turkey and Iran on one front, and both the government delegation and one representing leaders of the armed opposition.
The basis of the Astana conference was agreeing on a roadmap for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, tailor-made just over a year ago by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to defuse any calls for regime change in Damascus. The opposition had previously insisted that a Transitional Government Body be set up to rule instead of President Bashar al-Assad before any peace process could get underway, as set out in the Geneva communiqué of 2012. That has now been blasted from the negotiating table by the Kazakhstan conference, which based all future talks on UNSCR 2254.
That document makes only a passing and weakly worded reference to an intention to set up a transitional body by mutual consent, while at the same time ensuring the “continuity of government institutions.” Nor does it mention Assad’s future. It does, however, call for the drafting of a new constitution to replace the one implemented in February 2012, 11 months after the outbreak of the conflict. It also calls for a government of national unity to supervise presidential and parliamentary elections.
A copy of the proposed 85-article constitution was presented to the opposition by Russian diplomats at the end of the Astana meeting. Lavrov said on Wednesday that the blueprint had been based on the ideas of experts from Russia and both sides of the Syrian conflict. His then-US counterpart John Kerry was handed a draft last March, with a version expected to be published in August
Chunks of it were leaked back then through the London-based Saudi daily al-Hayat and the Beirut-based pro-Hezbullah daily, al-Akhbar, and more recently through Russian media.
For starters, the constitution changes the name of the war-torn country from “Syrian Arab Republic” to “The Syrian Republic.” This is how it had been during the years 1932-1958; the term “Arab” was only added in 1961, after the break-up of a short-lived union with Egypt. It aimed at emphasizing Syria’s Arab identity at at time of non-stop criticism from Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who accused the Syrians of being bad Arabs for wrecking his union republic. Removing the word will raise eyebrows from traditionalists and Baathists, who insist on Syria’s Arab identity despite the current stand-off with the Arab League, of which Syria was a founding member in 1944. The change will nevertheless please the country’s non-Arab minorities, such as Kurds, Circassians, Turkmen and Armenians.
The new constitution reportedly also scraps the stipulation that “Islam is the religion of the President of the Republic,” a thorn in the side of Syrian Christians ever since it was adopted in 1920, because they say it treats them as second-class citizens and bars them from office. Removing it fits in nicely with the Syrian government’s efforts to portray itself as a secular bulwark against fanaticism and radical Islam, and a protector of minority rights. It likely will not pass and be strongly vetoed by the opposition delegation, which is overwhelmingly Islamic.
The new charter also gives Syrian Kurds (estimated at 12%-15% of the population) the constitutional right to use the Kurdish language — a taboo topic previously — in their towns and villages, providing it is placed “on equal footing with the Arabic language.” This point will likely be vetoed by Turkey, which fears that giving more rights to Syrian Kurds would trigger the hopes and ambitions of their Turkish brethren, and by Damascus. They have already voiced their opposition to legalizing the Kurdish language except in private schools.
It also calls for decentralized government that would effectively break the monopoly on power held by Damascus since the end of World War I. This falls in line with proposals by the Russians and Turks at Astana, giving rebel groups the right to co-administer towns and cities, especially in the north. If the constitutional draft passes with no amendments, these districts would be allowed to elect their own governors — positions now appointed by Damascus — and share in their region’s wealth.
Perhaps the most interesting proposal in the new charter, according to the 2016 leaks, is the idea of local parliaments, with full legislative powers and the right to elect deputies to serve in a central Syrian Parliament in Damascus. Both central and local legislatures would take the same oath of office, and rule side-by-side with the Syrian presidency and premiership in a three-way division of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. A majority vote in any joint session of both chambers could bring down a cabinet, a power in the hands of the president under the constitution of 1973. Cabinets would answer to the two chambers, and not solely to the president. Among the new powers to be vested in the central Syrian Parliament is the right to appoint judges to the Higher Constitutional Court, and to name the central bank governor, deputy ministers, and deputy prime ministers. Damascus is unhappy with such a proposal and will try to drown it if it is put on the table at a forthcoming round of UN-mandated talks in Geneva scheduled for February 8.
Set quotas of seats have reportedly been scrapped, removing the allocations for the peasants and laborers who were the backbone of the Baath Party. The word “socialism” has been completely omitted from mention, oath, or economic orientation.
The draft retained the current limit on presidents to a maximum of two terms in office, each of up to seven years. Damascus is pushing for three seven-year terms.