When Russia presented its draft Syrian constitution in 2016, was it paving the way for saying in late 2020 that the constitutional reform process and the presidential elections of 2012 were two separate paths? Does the consolidation of the three regions of influence and will the reelection of president Bashar Assad revive the Russian draft constitution? What are the presidential privileges that have been discussed?
Statement and constitution
The year 2012 witnessed the approval of the Geneva Communique that called for the formation of the transitional governing authority that includes representatives of the regime and opposition with full executive powers. It also witnessed the referendum on the constitution that bolstered the presidential regime and the authorities of the president of the republic.
After Russia intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, Washington’s position on Assad’s role in the war-torn country changed. It used to demand his immediate stepping down and that he should not be involved in the governing body, before later accepting political transition without Assad. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry had in 2016 abandoned the call for regime change and spoken of an “independent Syria without Assad.” He later accepted the position of his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who said priority should be given to the constitution, rather than the governing body.
After the issuing of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 in late 2015, the Russians and Americans agreed to begin its implementation. The resolution expressed support for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations which would establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months and set a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution.
By further terms, the Council expressed support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under United Nations supervision, “to the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate.
As it turned out, the transitional process as stipulated in the Geneva Communique calls for transferring some privileges of the president to head of the governing transitional body, or rather the amendment of article 23 of the 2012 constitution.
The 2012 constitution calls for dividing executive privileges between the president and prime minister. The president has the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and ministers; he sets and executes general state policies; he is entitled to hold meetings with the government and request reports; he signs laws approved by parliament and issues laws and decrees.
The president is entitled to declare a state of emergency; he enjoys absolute power over the armed forces in his capacity as commander of these forces; he has the right to dissolve the parliament and can assume the role of the legislative authority should parliament fail to convene or in cases of utmost urgency.
The president is entitled to take urgent measures to confront major imminent dangers facing the state. He is entitled to set up councils and special committees and has the right to hold referendums over important issues.
The prime minister, ministers and lawmakers are answerable to the president, who is entitled to refer them to court should they commit criminal offenses.
The cabinet resigns as soon as the term of the president expires. The independence of the judiciary is ensured by the higher judicial council, which is overseen by the president, who also oversees the Supreme Constitutional Court. The Supreme Constitutional Court does not have the right to review laws that are approved by the president after they are subject to a referendum and accepted.
In March 2016, Russia presented a draft constitution that proposed a presidential system and keeping Assad in power until the end of his term. He would remain commander of the army and other armed factions and could run for another term in office. In return, the prime minister would be granted greater executive authorities and the parliament (People’s Assembly) would be granted greater legislative power.
Assad would further be demanded to abandon his legislative authority and ability to issue laws outside the authority of parliament. He would also abandon his authority over the higher judicial council and Supreme Constitutional Court, whose roles have been amended. In addition, the Russian draft identifies the country as the Republic of Syria rather than the Arab Republic of Syria.
The draft grants the prime minister greater power, while the president still controls the “general direction” of policies and execution of laws. The prime minister, however, would no longer be only answerable to the president, but to the parliament as well. The legislature would be tasked with overseeing the implementation of the government’s policies.
The draft stipulates that the prime minister, ministers and lawmakers are appointed according to proportional representation of all sects and national segments of society.
The draft keeps the president as commander of the armed forces, military and armed factions. It did, however, propose that the armed forces refrain from interfering in politics and stay out of the process of political transition. It said that keeping the military out of political work supports the democratic process and eases its grip over it.
Understandably, Damascus and its ally, Tehran, were not happy with the draft at the time. The Syrian government believed that the draft favored Russia’s interests, not Syria’s. Official experts submitted a number of reservations over it. They requested that the president be elected for two consecutive seven-year teams. In other words, as soon as his term ends, Assad would run again for president for another seven-year term, which begins as soon as he wins Thursday’s elections.
Their suggestions also eliminated the rights of the Kurdish people, including their use of the Kurdish and Arabic languages in regions under their control. They also called for eliminating an article in the Russian draft that spoke of the Kurds’ right to form administrative units and local administrations in their regions.
The question remains as to whether Russia would again propose its constitution for Syria after Assad is reelected, amid UN envoy Geir Pedersen’s efforts to resume the work of the Constitutional Committee after the polls and given that the frontlines in Syria have remained effectively unchanged for around a year. Along with the above, reports have said that the Americans and Russians are holding intense talks and there is a possibility that the Americans and Iranians may reach an agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program. Amid all this, Russia is keen on garnering international contributions to the reconstruction of Syria, which has incurred destruction estimated at half a trillion dollars.