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The new Syrian constitution is good, but requires courage

A new formula needs to emerge — one that breaks existing taboos and offers innovative roadmaps for the future

Gulf News

The Russian-proposed constitution for Syria is raising eyebrows, not only in opposition circles but within the pro-regime street as well. Syrians feel insulted by a charter authored by one outside power and approved by two others, Turkey and Iran. State-run media is trying to sugar-coat it by saying that the constitutional draft has been authored by “Syrian, Arab, and Russian legal experts” and many forums are endlessly debating its 85-controversial articles.

Nearly everybody who matters in Syria is upset with the new charter, except perhaps for a small elite of secular intellectuals who believe that running the country in the same manner that prevailed from independence from colonial France in 1946 until the outbreak of the current conflict in 2011 is practically impossible, both for the regime and its opponents. A new formula needs to emerge, politically, administratively, geographically, and psychologically — one that breaks existing taboos and offers innovative roadmaps for the future; one that requires a vivid imagination to formulate and political courage to implement.

The Islamists are furious, because the Russian constitution scraps Article 3, which specifies Islam as the religion of the president of the republic. This is a long-standing article since 1920 which several Syrian leaders, including Hafez Al Assad, tried to change, with little luck. Arab nationalists are also very unhappy with the new charter, because it changes the name of the country from “Syrian Arab Republic” into “Syrian Republic.” This was done by Russian lawmakers in order to please non-Arab components of Syrian society, like the Turkmen, Armenians, Circassians, and Kurds. It is how the republic was called between 1932-1958; the word “Arab” was only injected into its name as late as 1961, in response to a character slaughter campaign waged by then-Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, accusing Syrians of being “bad Arabs” for supporting a coup against the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian Union.

Strangely enough, an online campaign is going viral on Facebook, from Damascus, called ‘No to the Russian Constitution, because it neglects our Arabism and Islam’.

Although the new charter recognises the Kurdish language as one of the official languages of the country and drops the word ‘Arab’ from its name, Syrian Kurds are also not very satisfied with the Russian document, or with the recent agreement reached between Moscow and Ankara. They have rejected the charter as well and presented Moscow with a counterproposal, a “Kurdish Constitution” that proposes establishing a federal government, as well as legitimising Kurdish forces in Kurdish towns and villages in eastern Syria.

On the future of the Syrian presidency, the Russian-authored constitution gives a little bit to everybody — keeping everybody satisfied, and equally furious. For example, in order to please the opposition, it slashes some of the Syrian presidency’s legislative powers, taking away 23 authorities currently vested in the Office of the President. Such powers include the right to name judges on the Higher Court of Justice, the right to name governor of the Central Bank, and to appoint the prime minister and his deputies. To please Damascus officialdom, it keeps the president in full-control of the army and the security apparatus.

Additionally the new charter calls for a decentralised government, breaking the 99-year old grip that Damascus held over other parts of the country since collapse of the Ottoman Empire back in 1918. This allows faraway cities and towns to run their own affairs, without having to answer to the beck and call of the central government in Damascus, like electing their own governors and establishing their own local parliaments, which is heresy to the Baathists, who refuse to willingly relinquish their grip over cities and towns that were once an incubator for Baathism but have now largely shifted into the opposition ranks. It also means that the residents of remote cities like oil-rich Deir ez-Zour and Al Raqqa on the Euphrates will now get a share of their local wealth, rather than have it all funnelled to Damascus as had been the case for an entire century.

Federal legislature

According to the new charter, the local parliaments would elect a new house to represent them in the capital, and it would rule side-by-side with the central chamber. They would take the same oath, and share power with the presidency and the premiership, which is yet another taboo for the Baathists. A majority vote in any joint session of both chambers would be enough to bring down a cabinet of ministers, a task previously in the hands of the presidency, or impeach a sitting head of state.

Politically, the pre-set quota of all previous chambers since 1970 has now been scrapped, doing away with the allocated seats of peasants and labourers, being backbone of the Baath Party. Also the word ‘socialism’ has been completely omitted from mention, oath, or economic orientation, prompting Baathists to claim that this was a steady de-Baathification process, similar to the one launched by Bremer in Iraq after 2003.

The presidential term has been kept at seven years, renewable only once, but authorities in Damascus are lobbying to change that clause and make it “renewable only twice.” In previous constitutions since 1973, presidents were voted in a national referendum or through popular vote and not via parliament, as had been the case in the 1950s, during the zenith of Syria’s democratic years. That clause has now been revisited, making presidential elections via the chamber of deputies, yet another additional power vested now in the legislative branch.

Syrian negotiators, presently debating the draft in private, will take it to another level in Switzerland, where they are expected to meet under the auspices of the UN during the last week of February. It takes courage and leadership to say yes — even to half of the proposed constitutional changes.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is a Research Fellow at the Syrian Studies Centre at St Andrews University.

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