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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Assad’s claim that he is willing to rewrite Syria’s constitution is merely a fig leaf

The idea that the regime, having fought a bloody and brutal war for seven years, would now freely offer a concession to the UN is fanciful, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Sochi this month. Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin/Sputnik via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Sochi this month. Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin/Sputnik via Reuters

In among the snippets of news about parts of Syrian territory being “liberated” from “terrorists”, the Syrian government's official news agency released a short statement on Saturday that appeared to suggest the regime had complied with a key demand of the United Nations.

The statement from the foreign ministry said the regime had handed Russian and Iranian ambassadors a list of members nominated to a constitutional committee – a key demand the United Nations and the Russians have been making and one which Bashar Al Assad apparently agreed to two weeks ago on a surprise visit to see Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Was the Assad regime actually agreeing to rewrite Syria's constitution?

Well...barely, and only in the most cosmetic manner.

The United Nations had wanted the Syrian constitution to be rewritten for some years. This was a key demand of the opposition, along with the removal of Mr Al Assad.

The opposition imagined that the constitution would be rewritten after Mr Al Assad stepped aside but since that has not happened – and appears so unlikely to take place that even major western powers have stopped referring to it – the focus of negotiations has been on how the constitution rewriting could take place.

A constitutional committee was to be formed that would rewrite it and it was to this committee that the regime had nominated members.

Since both peace processes – the western-sponsored Geneva track and the Russian-sponsored Astana trackappear to be moribund, little progress has been made at all and the focus has been the battlefield.

But two weeks ago, Mr Al Assad made a surprise visit to see Mr Putin, after which he agreed to proffer some names, something he had previously refused to do.

Yet the devil, as ever, was in the detail and since the committee was announced, the regime and its backers have consistently undermined the possibility of genuine change. If Mr Al Assad has agreed to a key UN demand, he has only done so on his own terms and in a way that means even this breakthrough will only entrench his regime in power.

In January the UN, which had attended the Russian-backed Astana talks, said that a new constitution should be created.

A 50-strong commission would be put together to write this new constitution, with names drawn from a pool suggested by Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Assad regime.

Crucially, though, the UN’s special envoy Staffan de Mistura said that he would have the final say on the composition of the constitutional committee, that the opposition – including those who had boycotted Sochi because of the involvement of the regime – would be included and that the regime would not be able to veto any member of the committee.

Piece by piece, those elements have fallen away. Russia is now insisting that the regime has to sign off on the final committee names, which would immediately eliminate any opposition figures that the regime dislikes. Indeed, it will kill the very possibility of change, because the “opposition” that the regime favours tend to be Syrian figures inside the country who broadly favour the existing regime, with minor tweaks.

Damascus then insisted that its choices for the committee must number at least 51 per cent of the allocated places, giving it veto power on the final rewrite.

But the most significant change came in one word from Bashar Al Assad. In his statement after he met Mr Putin in Sochi two weeks ago, he said Syria would send a list of delegates to a constitutional committee that would “discuss amendments to the current constitution”. The essential word was “amendments”. The UN had talked of a new constitution.

That political bait-and-switch is significant. A committee that reviews the constitution and proposes “amendments” is very different to one which rewrites the whole thing.

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The Syrian constitution has long been a battleground for the opposition – but it has also been a key tool for how the regime has sought to create a veneer of public legitimacy for its rule.

In 2012, when the revolution was still in its first year, Mr Al Assad offered what appeared to be a major concession: the constitution would be rewritten. What emerged was something that was both significantly different but also geared to maintaining the regime’s rule.

The key change in 2012 was removing the clause that the Baath Party would be “the leading party in society and the state”, effectively ending one-party rule. At the same time, the constitution stipulated that any presidential contender must have lived in Syria for a decade, effectively neutralising any genuine challengers, who would have long been exiled.

The new constitution was put to a referendum, passed and was adopted – but did nothing to dampen the protests.

A similar process is taking place again. The regime is fighting furiously for its political survival, even as its removal by military means seems increasingly remote. It won’t even allow the most minimal changes.

What the regime, under Russian pressure, appears to be willing to tolerate are minor amendments to the constitution, assembled by a committee on which it holds veto power, with the rest of the seats allocated by foreign countries wedded to the regime’s survival, which would then be put to a vote only in areas of the country under regime control.

This is the only recipe for reform that the regime will accept and it has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even this most minimal position.

No wonder then that most opposition figures and many in the international community think boycotting is the best option, removing even the fig leaf of legitimacy that participation provides.

The idea that the regime, having fought a bloody and brutal war for seven years, would now freely offer a concession is fanciful. Far from accepting the need to reform, the regime is hellbent on ensuring nothing but the most minor changes are made.

Mr Al Assad has torn apart his country to avoid giving up an ounce of power. He is not about to start reforming now a victory is in sight.