Prospects of Post-War Syria: Constitution and Governance
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Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC Vice-president
The seven-year civil war in Syria, irrespective of when and how it ends, has already become a watershed between the “old” country and the country that needs to be formed after the hostilities are over. The Syrian crisis has long been a common problem for the entire international community. The current dangerous impasse is virtually impossible to overcome without fully utilizing multilateral mechanisms that are supported by Russia and the leading Western and regional powers.
Institutional reforms normally begin after the end of the military phase of a conflict. Syria is a unique case. There are no precedents in international practice when agreements on the future construction of the state have preceded the cessation of hostilities.
Indirect discussions between the government and the opposition are focused on crucial issues such as the future form of government in Syria, the country’s form of government and political regime. Applying the “winner takes it all” principle appears unrealistic and fraught with potential new conflicts in the future at the instigation of the defeated Sunni majority.
As for the form of government, compromises are possible. These would require analysing the entire history of Syria’s constitutional development, including the country’s experience of parliamentarism with all its upsides and downsides. The Middle Eastern countries, no matter how different they may be in terms of government, are all characterized by a strong supreme power. The series of Arab Spring revolutions did nothing to revert these traditions. After seven years of civil war in Syria, it would be naïve to expect society to welcome any tough centralization of power, especially in the hands of a single person.
Returning to the pre-2011 status quo does not seem to be realistic. Nor do the “victorious expectations” of the Damascus hardliners that they could confine themselves to superficial reforms while preserving the former political system a-la the National Progressive Front, which used to serve as the smokescreen for the Ba’ath Party’s privileged position in the power structure. The opposition, for its part, should reckon with the fact that the Syrian regime, with the help of its allies and primarily Russia, has persevered in the brutal civil war and the fight against the phenomenon of international terrorism known as Islamic State. Overly ambitious demands by both sides would only perpetuate the conflict, which cannot be resolved militarily.
As the Syrian army is squeezing Islamic State and other armed opposition groups out of the vast territories they had seized (Damascus controls more than 70 per cent of Syria’s territory, including its largest cities), the international focus is increasingly shifting to the country’s post-war structure. The discussion, both at the official international level and in the Track II format, of Syria’s future statehood reforms, economic reconstruction and security aims to assist the Syrian side in putting an end to the violence and advancing along the path of national reconciliation. The seven-year civil war (2011–18), irrespective of when and how it ends, has already become a watershed between the “old” country and the country that needs to be formed after the hostilities are over.
What makes the current phase of the Syrian crisis special is that the situation is conducive to an intensification of political efforts, which would allow the conflicting parties to tame their maximalist appetites. The solid international legal framework in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) contains a roadmap of sorts, which has been adopted as a basis by influential external and regional actors and provides a set of general guidelines for the intra-Syrian negotiation process. In practice, however, despite international mediator Staffan de Mistura’s attempts to arrange direct talks within the country, the Syrian government and the opposition never discussed the most important clauses of the resolution.
Proposals on Building a Regional Security System in West Asia and North Africa
One of the key provisions of Resolution 2254 calls for the drafting of a new constitution, in accordance with a specially established timeline and procedure. The adoption of this new document is viewed as part of the country’s transition to “inclusive and non-sectarian governance.” Despite the differing opinions as to the sequence of steps to be taken during the transition period, a more-or-less general understanding is gradually crystallizing that the launch of the constitutional process should come first. Russia, in turn, has submitted its own draft of the new constitution for the Syrian people. Moscow’s reasoning here is that the negotiation process is impossible to put into motion without the conflicting parties having some kind of document to begin with, something to serve as the basis for compromise.
The main problem is that Syria is unique in this respect. Institutional reforms normally begin after the end of the military phase of a conflict. There are no precedents in international practice when agreements on the future construction of the state preceded the cessation of hostilities. The Syrian crisis, which involves many influential actors, differs insofar as attempts to reach such agreements are being made while the military conflict is still ongoing. In fact, the results of multilateral negotiations are a precondition for the end of hostilities.
Three Approaches to New Constitution
The state structure of post-war Syria, and its constitutional legitimization, remain among the key issues at the centre of the tangle of external interests and intra-Syrian disagreements. The approaches in Syria itself differ considerably. At present, there are three main schools of thought among Syrian lawyers and political analysts.
The first school, which is primarily made up of representatives of the Syrian government, challenges the very need for a new constitution. Its advocates argue that cosmetic changes to the current Constitution of 2012 would suffice, because the document already contains sufficient concessions.
There are no precedents in international practice when agreements on the future construction of the state preceded the cessation of hostilities.
The second school, centrist as it were, cites the success stories of a number of countries which have embraced political transformation despite civil conflicts since 1990. As the initial step, its supporters propose adopting an interim constitution or a constitutional declaration, which would set forth the exact timeline and clear procedure for the subsequent adoption of a permanent document. The practicability of this approach is explained by the division and embitterment of society caused by the protracted conflict. The longer the conflict lasts, the stronger the polarization and the longer the transitional period required for restoring trust and achieving a national consensus on the draft permanent constitution will become. The experience of 22 countries indicates different periods of time were needed until a permanent constitution was adopted: from just one year in Togo (1992) to five years in Eritrea (1997). The proponents of an interim constitution propose including issues that have been generated by the conflict but only have a temporary effect and, theoretically, will not need to be regulated by the permanent constitution. In the Syrian case, these would include the rights of refugees and displaced persons, issues related to citizenship and identity documents, the dissolution of militias and reintegration of their members into society and government military structures, the resolution of property disputes arising in the course of the conflict, confidence-building measures, etc. In addition, the transition period prior to the adoption of the new constitution would create a favourable environment for the subsequent holding of a parliamentary election with the participation of newly formed political parties and civil society organizations.
The third school of thought, mainly represented by the Syrian opposition, ranging from liberals to moderate Islamists, insists on drafting a new constitution. Its supporters do, however, agree that the 2012 Constitution could be taken as a basis, but only if it is significantly amended. These amendments should effectively mean the transition of Syria from a profoundly presidential form of governance to a presidential-parliamentary one, as well as the decentralization of the state structure without ruining its unitary nature.
All these seemingly legal disagreements stem not just from the political component of the Syrian conflict, but also from the peculiarities of how Syria was formed as a uniform nation state.
What Awaits Syria?
History of Syria’s Constitutional Development
Syria has passed through several phases of constitutional development. The Sharia traditions formed back in the times of the Arab caliphates and the Ottoman Empire (661–1918) had the greatest impact, as did the French legal culture that had come with France’s League of Nations mandate (1920–1946) and the socialist-leaning post-colonial Pan-Arabism. All these factors resulted in a cocktail of legal systems as applied to public administration and the personal status of citizens. This history had a multifaceted impact on the country’s legal system, resulting in juridical controversies and collisions between many schools of political thought.
After the end of the First World War, Syria found itself in the midst of the emerging Arab national movement, which demanded the independent statehood that had been promised to King Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, by the British in 1915 in exchange for the active support of Arab tribes of the military campaign against Turkey . The Pan-Syrian Congress convened in March 1919 declared Emir Faisal, the Sharif’s son, the head of state of the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria, with its centre in Damascus. The congress ruled that the new state was to be a parliamentary monarchy based on “democratic principles, with a decentralized system of governance to guarantee the rights of minorities.” Syrian law scholars pay particular attention to these two factors – decentralization and minority rights – in the context of drafting the new constitution.
The 1919 draft of the constitution was never implemented, nor did an independent Arab state materialize. French troops entered Damascus under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, marking the beginning of the French protectorate (1920–1942). Syria’s legal system developed in a haphazard way under the French mandate due to France’s experiments to redraw the territory under its control based on the population’s religious sectarian leanings. Still, this period contributed to the inception of Western parliamentarism.
It was in this vein that the elective Constituent Assembly drafted the constitution of the united and independent Syrian Republic, which was rejected by the French authorities. In May 1930, the High Commissioner unilaterally introduced a French version of the constitution. Instead of an independent state, Syria was declared an “independent political entity” (Article 2) while still remaining under French control (Article 116) .
The 1930 constitution rests on the general principles of parliamentary republics lifted from the Constitutional Laws of 1875. The president was elected by a unicameral parliament. He was responsible for appointing the head of government, and also appointed ministers nominated by the latter. Syria was proclaimed a single political entity, with is nation as the source of power.
Legal disagreements stem not just from the political component of the Syrian conflict, but also from the peculiarities of how Syria was formed as a uniform nation state.
France subsequently switched from partial political concessions to direct military pressure, aiming to establish a military dictatorship in the country in order to use Syria as its advance base in the face of the imminent world war. The Syrian president stepped down in September 1939, parliament was dissolved, and the 1930 constitution was suspended.
During its first post-colonial period, Syria experienced a protracted sequence of military coups (there were nine in the period from 1949 to 1963, four in 1949–1951 alone). Even at that time the country remained, with minor interruptions, a parliamentary republic in terms of the form of governance, although in reality political life in Syria was controlled by the army and security forces. The principles of parliamentarism served as the foundation for the draft constitution of 1949, which was drawn up after Husni al-Za’im came to power, as well as for the 1950 Constitution, which was put into effect after yet another military coup, this time led by Colonel Adib Shishakli. The explanatory note to the 1949 draft constitution read that “the parliamentary system is best suited for the Syrian Republic, as it enables the nation to oversee the executive power and meets the people’s sentiments” .
The Lessons of Islamic State
The current supporters of the idea to limit the president’s powers attach particular importance to the 1950 Constitution, since it was adopted democratically via the elective Constituent Assembly. Unlike the other “short-lived” constitutional acts of the period when power was changing hands constantly, this constitution remained in effect (with certain amendments) for a relatively long period by Syrian standards of the time (until 1958). The only exception was the three-year period from 1951 to 1954, when Shishakli, who had remained Chief of the General Staff since 1949, orchestrated a new military coup, abolished the 1950 Constitution and introduced direct military dictatorship. The constitution drafted during that period significantly expanded the powers of the President (Shishakli had been elected president through a referendum). After his regime was toppled on February 25, 1954, the 1950 Constitution was reinstated.
The distinctive features of the 1950 Constitution are the primacy of the legislative branch (the president is elected by an elective parliament, which also votes on confidence in the government); the declaration of Islamic law as the main source of legislation (to balance things out, the document proclaims freedom of religion and the state’s respect for all religions and personal status of citizens regardless of their religious denomination); the Supreme Court’s control over how the Constitution is being implemented; and administrative decentralization as the principle of polity. These provisions resulted from a compromise between political forces that had fought for power during the transition period, which was accompanied by internal instability. It is true that the military regimes did breach the constitution’s formally democratic principles, but it still was quite modern for the times, as Syria was still in the process of forming its national statehood.
When analysing the first two decades of Syria’s independence, Syrian legal experts point out that the authors of the future constitution need to introduce tough provisions that limit the army’s intervention in politics. In addition, they say, Syria needs a stricter procedure for amending the constitution, given the frequent constitutional changes in the country’s past.
Syria’s subsequent constitutional and political development was influenced by the pan-Arab nationalism and “Arab unity” idea characteristic of the “romantic” period in the postcolonial evolution of the Arab world. It was under the influence of these ideas that Egypt, then the recognized regional leader, formed a unified state with Syria in 1958, the United Arab Republic led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. This was perhaps the most prominent attempt at Arab integration, but it failed three years later following a military coup in Damascus. The victory was won by Syrian nationalists, who believed that Egypt was turning Syria into its appendage.
After Syria’s breakup with Egypt, a new Constituent Assembly was elected in 1961. The assembly elected the new president and decided to reinstate the 1950 Constitution with significant amendments. The head of state was granted the right to dissolve parliament, whereas the executive branch, represented by the Council of Ministers that convened under the president’s chairmanship, was given certain law-making functions.
It was then that Syria began to depart from the Western state law and towards a presidential republic with a heavily centralized system of governance.
When analysing the first two decades of Syria’s independence, Syrian legal experts point out that the authors of the future constitution need to introduce tough provisions that limit the army’s intervention in politics.
The military coup that took place on March 8, 1963 marked the coming to power of army groups that transferred the right to form a civil government to the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party as the largest political organization in the country. The Ba’ath historiography refers the coup as the 8 March Revolution. Since then, the development of Syria’s political and legal system has been influenced by the Ba’ath Party and its unionist-socialist programme that aimed for a pan-Arab status. As the intra-party strife continued and the army kept intervening, there were frequent changes of government, and temporary constitutions would be adopted that had a strong ideological flavour. The only thing that remained unchanged was the de-facto single-party system that executed collective leadership at the party and government levels, with decisions made by the party’s Regional Command. The change of Ba’athist regimes continued until November 13, 1970, when Hafez al-Assad’s faction seized power with the support of the army. As a result of the referendum held on March 12, 1971, al-Assad was elected president, and later elected secretary-general, at the suggestion of the Ba’ath Provisional Regional Command.
The 1973 Revolution and the Emergence of Protest Sentiments
It was not until March 12, 1973 that Syria adopted a permanent constitution by universal referendum. The document remained in effect until 2012. The state and political systems proclaimed by the constitution were criticized by the opposition parties. Their aversion was primarily caused by the single-party system concealed in the guise of the National Progressive Front (NPF), which was created in 1972. The NPF comprised the parties and movements which had signed its charter and whom Ba’ath viewed as allies. However, its programme documents reflected the Ba’ath Party’s policy and ideology completely. A number of provisions contained in the NPF Charter and statute ensured that Ba’ath had an effective monopoly to power . Those opposition political forces which were not members of the front were de-facto rendered semi-legal and some, including the Muslim Brotherhood, went underground after the Ba’ath Party came to power.
The greatest criticisms were caused by the following aspects of the 1973 Constitution.
— Unlike the previous permanent constitutions, it had not been drafted by either the Constituent Assembly or by an elective parliament.
— In Article 8, Ba’ath is declared “the leading power in the state and society.” This resulted in the creation of a uniform party-state system, in which the ruling party acted as the decision-making centre that determined the state’s home and foreign policies.
— The head of state has extremely broad powers far beyond the remit historically accepted in presidential republics. The president simultaneously holds the post of secretary-general of the pan-Arab leadership at Ba’ath, Regional Command Secretary of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and Supreme Commander-in-Chief and Chairman of the NPF. There are, in effect, no counterbalances to his power, with the exception of his accountability to the party leadership, which nominates presidential candidacies and approves the list of candidates to stand in the elections to parliament (People’s Council). The constitution does not provide a detailed delineation of powers between parliament and the head of state. The president’s legislative powers significantly exceed those of parliament. For example, the president has the right to issue decrees that have the force of law not only when parliament is in recess, but also when it is in session, when matters of state so urgently require. Seeing as parliament was in session for six months every year on average, in practice this meant that presidential decrees took priority, and would be adopted by parliament ex post facto.
Major Challenges for the Military and Security Services in Syria
— The government’s role is limited. The head of government and all the ministers with their deputies are appointed by the president and have virtually no accountability to parliament. Their functions are purely administrative.
— Workers and peasants have 50 per cent of the seats in parliament, which restricts the ability of other social strata to influencing the law-making process and participating in public politics (in addition, Article 49 introduces party control over public organizations).
— The judiciary is not independent. Members of all judiciary bodies are appointed by the superior magistrate council, which is chaired by the president.
— The constitution contains no special provisions for the rights of ethnic minorities, with the exception of the general statement to the effect that all citizens are equal before the law. The country’s very name, Syrian Arab Republic, causes aversion on the part of the Kurdish population.
— No punishment was handed out for the abolition of the laws passed in the 1960s that infringed upon the rights of citizens and are contrary to the formally democratic articles of the Constitution itself, such as the Law “On Emergency Situations,” the Law “On the Protection of the Revolution” and the Law “On Military Tribunals,” among others.
At the same time, it should be noted that the 1973 Constitution contained a number of generally accepted provisions that enshrined the personal freedoms and democratic rights of citizens, including social and economic rights. Law enforcement agencies operating within the single-party system inevitably breached the constitution, which led to an increase of protest sentiments in society, resulting in mass protests from March 2011 onwards.
Bashar al-Assad and Misplaced Hopes
Having inherited power from his highly experienced father, who had maintained an authoritarian rule in Syria for almost 30 years (1971–2000), Bashar al-Assad was initially given the vote of confidence by the international community and his own people, which hoped that this representative of the new young generation would bring about swift change. However, these hopes did not come true. Having carried out economic liberalization in the early 2000s, al-Assad failed to overcome the resistance of the “old guard” within the party leadership and security services, which had supported the complex constitutional and political procedures involved in the transfer of power from father to son. The political system remained unchanged, despite the serious democratic changes that had taken place in the region and the world.
Many Middle Eastern experts describe the period between 2000 and 2010 as “the time of missed opportunities.”
Faced with the threat of street protests turning into civil war, the Syrian leadership decided to balance force with concessions, something it had not done for decades. On April 17, 2011, President al-Assad announced the imminent introduction of a “packet of reforms,” a massive reform campaign by Syrian standards, in order to eliminate, as he conceded, “the emerging gap between government institutions and Syrian citizens” . Decree 100 “On Political Parties” dated August 3 initiated the state’s departure from the concept of concentrating power in the hands of a single party, and a bill on the media was submitted to parliament one month later. Decree 101 enacted the law on general elections. The Presidential Decree of October 16 mandated that a 29-member special commission be formed in order to draft a new constitution (all the Syrian constitutions prior to Ba’ath’s coming to power had been drafted by the elective Constituent Assembly or by the Constitutional Assembly) . The draft constitution was approved in the referendum of February 26, 2012.
The 2012 Constitution became the ninth such document for Syria. The main changes from the 1973 Constitution are as follows. There is much less ideology in the text. There are no mentions of Ba’athism. There is not a single article mentioning socialism (there were 12 in the previous constitution). Instead, the emphasis is on the concept of human rights.
The most significant change was the abolition of Ba’ath’s monopoly to power (Article 8) and the introduction of a multi-party system. Article 8 reads that the country’s power system is based on the principle of “political pluralism.” Political discrimination on religious, denominational, racial, regional, social, professional or gender grounds is unacceptable. At the same time, the new constitution bans the creation of parties based on religion or ethnicity. The document guarantees the cultural diversity of society, its various strata and groups. The section on the political rights and freedoms of citizens, including the right to hold rallies and demonstrations, organize industrial actions, set up public organizations and independent trade unions, is significantly expanded (Articles 43–45).
However, all these changes, however democratically oriented, were not enough to relieve the social tension in the situation when external intervention began and the conflict entered the military phase. On the other hand, it should be noted that the legitimate Syrian leadership gave reason to question its tenability after it did not have the foresight to see the need for reforms and resorted to force in response to the initially non-violent demands (which included the abolition of Article 8). The Ba’ath Party’s monopoly to power has long turned into an anachronism, and its slogan, “Unity, liberty, socialism,” has lost its erstwhile appeal. Many Middle Eastern experts describe the period between 2000 and 2010 as “the time of missed opportunities.” While the decade-long civil war in Algeria resulted from hasty political reforms, Syria is a classic example of the grave consequences which may result from continuing with a political system that has exhausted its resources.
The opposition, which is being torn apart by internal disagreements on many other issues, is united in its criticism on the way the 2012 Constitution was adopted, as well as on its content. Approved at a referendum amid an escalating civil conflict, the opposition argues the constitution cannot be viewed as a product of national consensus. The Constitutional Commission was formed by a direct presidential decree, meaning that its members were appointed. The draft document was not proposed for public discussion, which was hardly possible amid the intensification of armed clashes. The criticisms once again mostly have to do with the fact that the constitution does not provide for the division of powers, as well as with the demands to restrict the powers of the president (in this sense the new constitution does not differ much from the previous one), give more rights to local administrations and ethnic minorities by way of decentralisation and ensure the independence of the judiciary.
Centralization or Decentralization?
Indirect discussions between the government and the opposition are focused on crucial issues such as the future form of government in Syria, the country’s polity and political regime.
Applying the “winner takes it all” principle appears unrealistic and fraught with potential new conflicts in the future at the instigation of the defeated Sunni majority. Damascus is considerably restrained in its ability to expand the area of government control to the north and east with support from its allies. Moving forward in these directions may result in direct confrontation with Turkey and the United States, whose troops are deployed in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin and in Idlib Governorate, as well as in a number of areas east of the Euphrates, near the border with Iraq. The military presence of Iran, Hezbollah and Iran-controlled Shiite militant groups on Syria’s southern borders is categorically unacceptable to Israel, which openly demonstrates its determination to counter “the Iranian threat.” Therefore, al-Assad’s broadcast statements to the effect that “every inch” of Syrian soil will be freed, if put into the broader political context, sound divorced from reality (1;2). Such an approach threatens to drag Russia into armed clashes with the United States, Israel and possibly Turkey. This could happen inadvertently, or as a result of an intentional provocation.
Returning to the old heavily centralized system of governance is hardly possible following the years-long civil war. To a certain degree, decentralization has already happened. Self-administration bodies have been formed in the opposition-controlled areas which, if compromise agreements are reached with the government, could become examples of grassroots national reconciliation.
In the post-conflict period, any central government will inevitably face difficulties in the case of unilateral armed attempts to reinstate local administrations in remote areas, especially in the north and east of the country. It is not just about the lack of financial resources and the ruined infrastructure. During the years of the war, power in many Syrian areas considered loyal to the government came to be concentrated in the hands of various militia units (so-called self-defence forces) and other non-government shadow structures not controlled by Damascus. Their influence is based on military economy, which breeds antisocial phenomena like runaway smuggling, black market operations, looting and extortion, kidnappings and theft of valuable cultural artefacts.
Returning to the old heavily centralized system of governance is hardly possible following the years-long civil war.
On the other hand, the question of how much decentralization is enough is fairly legitimate. Centralization of the system of local administrations has its roots in the history of Syria’s statehood. For many years, the evolution of the country’s statehood was accompanied by its counteraction to France’s attempts to dismember the territory it controlled into quasi-independent state entities. Little wonder, then, that the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity is among the few issues on which the government and the motley opposition are largely in consensus.
Demands to turn Syria into a federation are hardly viable. In the Arab world, such forms of state structure have not been successful over the years, as illustrated by the experience of Iraq and Yemen. It appears that the best choice in Syria’s case would be to seek such forms of administrative and cultural autonomy that would satisfy the needs of ethnic minorities while ensuring there are safeguards in place against territorial disintegration.
Compromises can potentially be reached on a “unitary decentralized” system, as it is referred to by a number of opposition members during informal discussions with Russian experts. They say that talks on these issues could be based on the law on local administration, which was enacted by Presidential Decree No. 107 on August 23, 2011. The law grants rather broad powers to local authorities of various levels, whose members are elected and partially appointed. However, their activity is subject to strict scrutiny by the presidentially appointed governors, as well as by representatives of the government (the Supreme Council for Local Administration, which was created for the purpose, is chaired by the prime minister).
As for the form of government, compromises are possible as well. These would require analysing the entire history of Syria’s constitutional development, including the country’s experience of parliamentarism with all its upsides and downsides. The Middle Eastern countries, no matter how different they may be in terms of government, are all characterized by a strong supreme power. The series of Arab Spring revolutions did nothing to revert these traditions. The experience of Iraq demonstrates that the toppling of a regime which was based on the single-party model for years leads to the collapse to the entire political system and statehood. The United States found it much more difficult to fill the power vacuum in Iraq than it did securing the military victory there. Parliamentarianism in the Western sense is not part of the Arab historical social traditions. This is particularly true of such multi-ethnic and multi-denominational states as Syria and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, the establishment of a Western-style parliamentary system brought to power representatives of the Shiite majority and resulted in the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This prompted part of the Sunni population to choose the path of armed resistance. As for Syria, after seven years of civil war, it would be naïve to expect society to welcome any tough centralisation of power, especially in the hands of a single person.
Revival of the Caliphate: Soon or Even Sooner?
The New Syrian Constitution: The Optimal Scenario
Informal discussions of the aforementioned issues demonstrate that of all the options for further constitutional development in Syria, the most preferable one would be to take the 2012 Constitution as the basis and introduce a number of significant amendments to it. Experts say that adopting an interim constitution (or declaration), as was the case during the transition period in Egypt, has its advantages. However, with no guarantees of stability in place there is a risk that the legal framework will be undermined, and a political vacuum will be created, should a new aggravation hinder the adoption of a permanent constitution. The 1950 Constitution cannot be a compromise alternative either, although some of its provisions are quite relevant to strengthening the legislative branch within the new model of the division of powers.
In late January 2018, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress was convened at Russia’s initiative. It represented a broad spectrum of Syrian society: representatives of pro-government and opposition political parties, civil organizations, and ethnic, denominational and social groups. The congress approved the general principles of state-building and decided in principle on the composition of a 150-strong Constitutional Committee. The committee will include representatives of the government, the opposition and independent Syrian experts representing civil society. At his meeting with President Putin in Sochi on May 17, President al-Assad said he was prepared to submit a list of governmental delegates to the Constitutional Committee.
The final decision on the criteria for selecting the committee’s members, as well as on its mandate, powers and procedures, is to be made as part of the intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the United Nations. As per the agreements reached in Geneva, the drafting of the constitution and the elections are part of Baskets 2 and 3 of the political process. The UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General has much work ahead in order to coordinate both existing and new proposals on the draft Syrian constitution and work out the sequence of further steps as part of the political transition process.
At the initial stage, it will be important to bring the sides to reach mutually acceptable agreements on the composition of the Constitutional Committee. This issue has already triggered heated debate both between the government and various opposition platforms and also within the ranks of the opposition. Damascus, for its part, does not hide its intention to secure a governmental majority in the committee. The international mediator believes it is optimal to cap the committee at 50 members. An even more difficult task will present itself at the next stage of the negotiations. Given that the committee’s decisions, as previously agreed, should be adopted by consensus, any of the three constituent groups can veto a decision. With such a procedure in place, and in the light of the continuing hostilities, the discussion of amendments to the constitution may quickly stall.
The experience of Iraq demonstrates that the toppling of a regime which was based on the single-party model for years leads to the collapse to the entire political system and statehood.
The Syrian crisis has long become a common problem for the entire international community. Ultimately, the question is what means and external stimuli could help the Syrians, who so far refuse to negotiate among themselves, to find common ground that would allow Syria to return to stable development on the basis of a new social contract between the government and society. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the current dangerous impasse is virtually impossible to overcome without fully utilizing multilateral mechanisms that are supported by Russia and the leading Western and regional powers. The latest statements by Russian officials on Moscow’s readiness to consider proposals coming from the so-called ‘small group’ comprising the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Jordan open new opportunities in this respect.
Under these circumstances, returning to the pre-2011 status quo does not seem to be a realistic scenario. Nor do the “victorious expectations” of the Damascus hardliners that they could confine themselves to superficial reforms while preserving the former political system a-la the National Progressive Front, which used to serve as the smokescreen for the Ba’ath Party’s privileged position in the power structure. The opposition, for its part, should reckon with the fact that the Syrian regime, with the help of its allies and primarily Russia, has persevered in the brutal civil war and the fight against the phenomenon of international terrorism known as Islamic State. This regime can no longer be taken out, which seemed to be a possibility at the beginning of the Arab Spring. For this reason, overly ambitious demands by both sides would only perpetuate the conflict, which cannot be resolved militarily.
1. To learn more about this period in history, referred to as the Arab Awakening, see Vitaly Naumkin. A partnership that Failed: Soviet Diplomacy in Saudi Arabia between the Two World Wars. Moscow: IVRAN, Aspect Press, 2018, pp. 32–45.
2. Dr. Kamal Ghali, Principles of Constitutional Legislation and Political Systems, Damascus, 1978, p. 553 (in Arabic).
3. Ibid, pp. 542–543.
4. Marina Sapronova. Political Systems of Arab countries: M., Urait, 2018. p. 110.
5. Wieland C. Syria – A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring. Seattle: Cune Press, 2012, p. 32.
6. Marina Sapronova. Political Systems of Arab Countries: M., Urait, 2018, p. 263.
(votes: 4, rating: 5)
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