The majority of Syrians have rejected the draft constitution proposed by Russia that was presented to the armed opposition factions at the end of the Astana Conference in Kazakhstan on the conflict in the country on 23 January.
Many of those present at the conference refused to look at it, stating that their role was to engage in negotiations for a ceasefire and that they had nothing to do with political negotiations. Only the Syrian people could decide on a new constitution for the country, the armed opposition members said.
Abdel-Hakim Rahmoun, a representative of the opposition Jaish Al-Nasr group at the conference, said that the armed opposition delegations had told the Russians they had not come to Astana to discuss the shape of the future regime in Syria, but to cement the ceasefire, end the siege and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, the political opposition also rejected the Russian plan, with the Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change saying that the Russian draft constitution was objectionable on principle. It was up to the Syrian people to write their own Constitutional Declaration at the beginning of the transitional phase, it said.
“We reject this constitution in its entirety,” one leading figure in the opposition Higher Negotiations Commission told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We don’t want to look at it or discuss it irrespective of its content.”
“Only a colony could have its constitution imposed by another country, and Syria is not a colony. It is an independent state. There are many qualified people in Syria who can draft a new constitution that meets the aspirations of the people and is compatible with global realities.”
The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad also rejected the draft constitution, asking for many amendments and rewriting sensitive articles, notably those setting out the president’s powers.
Explaining why the opposition had rejected the Russian draft, Syrian human rights activist Nader Jabali told the Weekly that “a constitution written and imposed from outside is a constitution without a soul, a strange seed planted in the wrong environment. The key factor for the success of any constitution is the people’s acceptance of it, and it is very important that citizens write their own constitution for themselves.”
“A constitution is the outcome of dynamics coming from the historical depths of a society, and reflecting its traditions, values, temperaments and political maturity. How can an outsider express all this,” Jabali asked.
Russia’s draft constitution for Syria includes 85 articles. It eliminates the word “Arab” from the name Arab Republic of Syria, eliminates Islamic jurisprudence as a source of legislation, does not specify Islam as the religion of the president, says that Arabic and Kurdish are equal in Syria’s “autonomous Kurdish regions,” and decentralises the government.
It eliminates the condition that the president must be born to two parents of Syrian nationality, removes the condition that he cannot be married to a foreigner, says he has no legislative powers, but puts the country’s armed forces under his mandate.
It allows the president to declare a state of emergency and directs that deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers be appointed on sectarian and ethnic proportional principles.
Syrian lawyer Michel Shammas said the Syrian people were more capable than the Russians of writing a new constitution. “We are not as incompetent as to need the Russians to impose a foreign constitution on us,” Shammas told the Weekly.
“Lawyer Anwar Al-Bonni produced a new draft constitution in 2005 before he was sent to prison in 2006. That draft was ignored because it was written in the midst of so much suffering.”
Al-Bonni, a well-known Syrian opposition figure, said in 2011 that Syria needed a Constitutional Declaration rather than a new constitution because a referendum on a new constitution would be impossible under wartime conditions.
“A Constitutional Declaration for the interim phase would define the mandate of the government, the transitional authority, and judicial bodies. It would last for two years during which people could recover their sense of normalcy without the pressures of war. Only after that can we discuss a permanent constitution,” he said.
Commenting on the new Russian plan, Al-Bonni told the Weekly that “the Russian game is to divide the Syrian people over the constitution and hand a draft to the armed militia groups that know nothing about the law. This will drive a greater wedge between Syrians and transform the battle from one against tyranny to one between sections of society.”
“Discussions over the constitution should take place in a secure society among a free people. Islamists, secularists, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, women, men – everyone should be invited to participate under the roof of a free nation after we have ended the violence and seen the back of the present regime.”
Those who have agreed to read the draft constitution say that it contains ambiguities, such as not specifying the form of the state. It refers to “autonomous Kurdish cultural regions,” the first time such an expression has been used, and the notion of decentralisation is not explained. It also establishes sectarian and ethnic representation, a model that has failed when it has been tried in Iraq and Lebanon.
“Writing a new constitution is easy. But the important thing is achieving consensus on the content of any new constitution,” Jabali said. “Without this consensus, any talk about writing a new constitution is worthless. However, at present half the Syrian population has fled abroad, the country is under occupation, and there is no security or even minimal degree of freedom.”
Observers believe Russia is trying to pre-empt this month’s Geneva Conference on the conflict in Syria by marketing its own new constitution. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference this week that the Geneva Conference would discuss the draft constitution.
However, the Syrian opposition will attend the Geneva Conference only if it is based on the 2012 Geneva Declaration that calls for the formation of a new government with full powers to begin the transitional phase.
An opposition boycott of the Geneva Conference is almost certain if the meeting’s only goal is to discuss Russia’s draft constitution.