Beirut: A new Syrian constitution, drafted by lawmakers in Damascus, was presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last March, who in turn gave a draft to his US counterpart John Kerry. It was debated during the months of April-May by presidential envoys from Moscow and Washington DC, and is expected to see the light, at least in draft, by August 1, as mandated by UN Security Coundil Resolution 2254.
If accepted, it would replace the current charter, penned 11 months after the outbreak of the current crisis, back in February 2012.
The new constitution builds upon previous Syrian charters, and notably changes the name of the country from “Syrian Arab Republic” to the “Syrian Republic”, as it had been during 1932-1958. The word “Arab” was added in 1961, after the break-up of the Syrian-Egyptian Union, to prove Syria’s Arab identity amid accusations by President Jamal Abdul Nasser, who blamed the Syrians for the collapse of the union, accusing them of being “bad Arabs”.
Removing the word “Arab” has been a pressing demand by non-Arabs who are part of the country’s ethnic diversity, like Syrian Kurds, Armenians, and Turkmen. The Baathists, who are ideologically committed on paper to achieving Arab unity, remain strongly opposed to changing the name of the republic.
Another notable change in the new constitution is omitting Article 3 which says that “Islam is the religion of the President of the Republic.” This article, in-place since 1920, has always been criticised by Syrian Christians, who claim that it treats them as second-class citizens and bars them from the Syrian Presidency. They always argued that it was outrageous that a Syrian Kurd from the eastern provinces, who spoke no Arabic, could run for the presidency because he was a Muslim, while a Christian from Aleppo or Damascus was constitutionally barred from the post. Parliament debated removing the controversial clause in the early 1950s, to no avail, and then President Hafez Al Assad tried, with little luck, to omit it in the charter of 1973. Removing it today fits in nicely with the Syrian government’s self-proclaimed image of being a secular bulwark against fanaticism and radical Islam, and a protector of minority rights. On paper, Syrian Christians will be allowed to run for office if the new constitution sees the light this summer.
The new charter also gives Syrian Kurds (estimated at 12-15 per cent of the population) the constitutional right to use the Kurdish language — a taboo topic in all previous charters — in their towns and villages, providing it is placed “on equal footing with the Arabic language.” During the heyday of Arab nationalism, only one language was constitutionally accepted in Syria, being Arabic, although Kurdish, Armenian, Hebrew, and Aramaic were all spoken in different parts of the country. Clearly, Syrian Kurds are being appeased politically, given their usefulness on the Syrian battlefield in combating Turkish ambitions in northern Syria and territorial ones of Daesh. They are also being courted politically and militarily by the Russians and Americans, with periodic distributions of arms and money.
The new charter also empowers Syrian districts with a strong decentralised system of government, greatly reducing the authority of Damascus. In theory, this means that in addition to choosing their own language, these districts can now elect their own governor, rather than have him or her appointed by Damascus officialdom. It also means that they will get their region’s share of wealth, which is music to the ears of residents of oil-rich Deir Al Zour along the Euphrates River. For years, they were the poorest residents of Syria, although sitting upon a reservoir of oil that was funnelled and sold by Damascus. Little to nothing of its revenue went to developing Deir Al Zour and other rich parts of eastern and north eastern Syria.
Additionally, local parliaments are now on the table, with full legislative powers, and the right to elect their deputies to serve on a central Syrian Parliament in Damascus. This is a long-forgotten system briefly adopted by the French Mandate in Syria back in the early 1920s. The two parliaments, central and local, would take the same oath of office, and rule side-by-side with the Syrian presidency and premiership. A majority vote in any joint session of both chambers would be enough to bring down a cabinet of ministers, another task previously in the hands of the Syrian President.
Any chamber would have to collectively answer to the two chambers, and not exclusively to the Syrian Presidency. Among the new powers now vested in the central Syrian Parliament is the right to appoint judges on the Higher Constitutional Court, previously exclusive in the hands of the Syrian Presidency, and to name governor of the Central Bank of Syria (also previously a presidential prerogative). Since the bank is not so central anymore, and wealth will be equally shared by different districts, the bank’s name has been changed to “National Bank of Syria.”
The post of deputy prime minister, previously in the hands of the Syrian Presidency, is now subject to appointment based on equal representation of all ethnicities and sects in Syria. Meaning, just like in Iraq and Lebanon, if the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, his deputies would have to be Christians or Alawites, Shiites, and Druze. The cabinet of ministers is empowered to sign treaties on behalf of the Syrian State, like giving foreign companies economic rights in Syria, and to hire and fire state employees, and soldiers. This is a major diversion from the socialist state, which prohibited firing people from government service, creating a huge, bulky and ineffective bureaucracy.
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. The word “socialism” has been completely omitted from mention, oath, or economic orientation. The word “Arabise” has also been removed, which was central to the presidential oath in the previous two constitutions of 1973 and 2012.
With regard to the Syrian Presidency, the new charter keeps the age at 40 for running for office but cancels a clause that says a Syrian president needs to hail from two Syrian parents and prevents him from marrying a non-Syrian woman. The presidential term has been kept at seven years, renewable only once. This means that if the new constitution sees the light this year, and early elections are called for in 2017, the president of the republic gets to stay in power until 2031.
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 — which automatically disqualifies millions of Syrians living in the diaspora from voting in any presidential race. By law, Syrian citizens living abroad can vote for presidential office in direct elections and not for parliament only if there is an accredited Syrian embassy in their country of residency.
Once elected by the chamber, the new president would be sworn in to office before parliamentarians from the central and local assemblies. Constitutionally, the president’s legislative powers have been abolished in the new constitution, and his duty is now to serve as “liaison between state and society.” He nevertheless keeps his authority as commander-in-chief of the Syrian Army, and is mandated to take action in light of “aggression of threat of aggression” after consulting the local chambers and centralised parliament. His powers include the right to declare martial law, “in consultation” with the two chambers, and If the presidential seat becomes vacant, due to death or incapacity, power goes first to the prime minister, and if he too is absent, to the central parliament in Damascus.
Finally, according to the new constitutional draft, the armed forces are barred from any political conduct — no membership in political parties, no voting rights, and no say in international affairs or treaties, and paramilitary forces and militias are banned. A vague clause was added vis-a-vis forced military conscription (in place since 1948). In the present constitution, it says that military service is a “sacred obligation” whereas in the new charter, Syrian citizens are obliged to “fulfil their military service” according to the law.