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Russia's proposed Syria constitution: A makeover without substance? Open in fullscreen

Karim Traboulsi

Russia's proposed Syria constitution: A makeover without substance?

Russia's proposed constitution offers little more than superficial, albeit colourful, change [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 May, 2016

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Analysis: Leaked parts of a Russian-drafted constitution for Syria suggest a continuation of its president-centred system, while concessions on decentralisation and cosmetic amendments offer a glimpse of Assad's post-war vision.

If a report by Hizballah-leaning newspaper Al-Akhbar is correct, a new, Russian-proposed constitution for Syria has been drafted, and will soon be submitted for discussion in the - as-yet stalled - Syrian peace negotiations

The Russian draft is part of a process agreed with Washington in March, whereby the US and Russia aim for a draft constitution by August. It would then be put up for a referendum in the autumn.

There were also reports in April the two countries were working jointly on a draft, but at the time, Western sources said Russia's proposals too close to the Syrian government's position. 

The pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper reported on April 1 that Russia gave a proposed draft to John Kerry during his visit to Moscow in March. The US was studying the proposals, which were based on documents by legal experts close to the government, the paper said, citing an unidentified person familiar with the matter.

Asked about the proposed constitutional structure for Syria, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that Russia and the US were ready to assist the process by proposing ideas:

"This is about helping the process, but of course it is the Syrian people who must decide."

The new report is scarce on substantial details, but it is possible to make a number of inferences from the alleged leaks

A presidential system

The new report is scarce on substantial details, but it is possible to make a number of inferences from Al-Akhbar's alleged leaks.

While the proposed constitution claws back some powers from the Syrian president, handing them to the prime minister and decentralised "regional commissions", the system of government remains largely presidential.

The president would retain near-absolute control over the armed forces and other security agencies according to the draft, and there is little to suggest he could be impeached by a democratic mechanism.

This would raise immediate objections from the Syrian opposition, which is supposed to approve the draft if it should be agreed in a peaceful settlement.

For one thing, the Syrian opposition has long insisted on the substance of the Geneva Communique, which requires transferring the executive powers of the president to a transitional governing body that would then itself oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

For another, if - as the opposition suspects - the president in question will be none other than Bashar al-Assad himself, these objections will be even more pronounced. The leaked document, for example, gives the president a maximum of two seven-year terms, but that could well mean Assad gets another 14 years in power after the constitutional reset button is pressed.
The leaked document gives the president a maximum of two seven-year terms, but that could well mean Assad gets another 14 years in power after the constitutional reset button is pressed
The Syrian opposition is yet to comment on the leaked document, but activists on social media have decried what would be an externally imposed constitution as "Russian imperialism".

Al-Akhbar's Tuesday report touted Russia's draft constitution as containing "fundamental amendments" compared with the 2012 constitution, claiming it strips Syria's presidency of some of its powers and ensures the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

The draft, for example, "removes the authority of legislation away from the presidency while granting additional powers to the Council of Ministers", according to the Lebanese daily.

The paper also vaguely claimed the new Russian-proposed constitution redefined the role of the president as a "mediator" between state and society, but stopped short of explaining what exactly this may entail.

The president would no longer appoint the members of the constitutional court or the head of the central bank, re-dubbed the National Bank, which would become the prerogative of the government - which he still appoints - and two new supposedly elected assemblies/legislatures: the Assembly of the Regions and the Assembly of the People.

The Russian draft also 'gives broad powers to local administrations', dubbed the regional commissions, which will then be represented nationwide through an elected Assembly of the Regions

Concessions and cosmetics

Al-Akhbar reported that the Russian draft also "gives broad powers to local administrations", dubbed the regional commissions, which will then be represented nationwide through an elected Assembly of the Regions.

While Russia's proposal appears to make limited concessions on the powers of the presidency, there are some interesting amendments that offer a glimpse of the Russian vision for a settlement in Syria, likely coordinated with the Damascus regime.

First of all, the proposed constitution appears to devolve certain powers to the local bodies mentioned earlier. This is "a potential concession aimed to gain the favour of the de-facto autonomous Kurdish cantons of northern Syria that have moved in recent months to create their own federal system," wrote Now Lebanon.

Unlike current Syrian regime laws that stifle the expression of Kurdish expression, the report added, "the new constitution [may] aim to enshrine the rights of local regions to use 'the language of the majority of the population' in addition to the country’s official language of Arabic".

The decentralisation could also be aimed at appeasing the population of areas currently outside the control of - and deeply hostile to - the Syrian regime in the future, and not just the powerful Kurdish constituency. 

By minimalising their interaction with the central government and giving power to regional actors, who may include current rebel leaders in those areas, Russia may be vying for a more sustainable mode of governance for these regions.

The proposal contains hints of ethnic and sectarian-based quotas in the legislatures to be established, in line with similar formulas in place in post-war Iraq and Lebanon


In addition, the proposal contains hints of ethnic and sectarian-based quotas in the legislatures to be established, in line with similar formulas in place in post-war Iraq and Lebanon.

But this is where the appeasement seems to stop. In what may be a controversial move for many rebel factions, several of which are Islamists and have a profound issue with the dominance of the minority Alawite community over the regime, the proposed constitution appears more secular-leaning.

For starters, it removes the requirement for the president to be Muslim and removes reference to Islam as a source of legislation as present in the current constitution. It removes the word "God" from the oath of the president.

The proposal also removes the Arab identity of the Syrian Republic, and in a sign of further de-Baathification of Syria, drops references to socialist and nationalist phraseology in the current constitution, for example removing the present constitution's stipulation to "work to achieve social justice and the unity of the Arab nation". 

The proposal calls for the liberalisation of the Syrian economy towards a free market economy

Russian-sponsored neoliberalism?

Interestingly, the proposal calls for the liberalisation of the Syrian economy towards a free market economy. 

One proposed articles quoted by the Lebanese daily states: "Syria secures the freedom of economic activity and recognises private ownership... the state shall create conditions based on market relations to develop the economy and guarantee free enterprise and the freedom of goods and capital," in contrast with the socialist clauses in the current constitution that emphasise central economic and social planning.

Worth noting is that the neoliberal policies of the Syrian regime since the 1980s have been blamed by some experts as one of the leading causes of the uprising.

The liberalisation of how Syria signs off on concessions, meanwhile, should not be seen in isolation from Russia's energy interests in the country. In the leaked constitution, the power to conclude deals with foreign governments and entities appears simpler, and at the prerogative of ministries rather than the president or parliament.

The leaked Russian proposal gives a rough impression of the post-war settlement in Syria the regime and its allies, and possibly even Washington, would like to impose

Assad getting his way?

While it is likely to face stiff opposition from other players in Syria, the leaked Russian proposal gives a rough impression of the post-war settlement in Syria the regime and its allies, and possibly even Washington, would like to impose, if they had their way.

A key requirement for a new Syrian government or governing body to be authentically "transitional" is for it to have the mandate to oversee a review of Syria's constitution, writes Doris Carrion of Chatham House.

John Kerry's recent announcement that the US and Russia would work together to draft a new constitution means that this defining element of a post-settlement transitional process is effectively no longer endorsed by the international backers on either side of this civil war, she added.

This is yet another signal that the international community's approach to a settlement for Syria is increasingly resembling the regime's position. The UN mediator's summary of the latest round of Syrian talks implies that the institution of the presidency would continue during the transitional period, which makes it even more likely that Assad will remain part of any new Syrian government, she concluded.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Syrian opposition sources told The New Arab the Higher Negotiations Committee was likely to participate in the next round of peace talks on June 5, which is likely to tackle the subject of the constitution and transition.

The opposition cited no conditions regarding transition, emphasising instead the need for aid to be allowed by the regime to enter areas under siege and for rebel infighting to stop.

Indirect talks collapsed when no headway was made over thorny issues led by the fate of Bashar al-Assad and the regime's rejection of a transitional government. This coincided with a sharp, ongoing escalation in fighting across Syria.

Follow Karim Trabousi on Twitter: @Kareemios

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