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Syria: Reform to end all reform!

In his speech on 10 January 2012, President Bashar Al Assad of Syria made it clear that local administration (municipal) elections were held – less than a month earlier – “under very hard circumstances. And because of the security situation, it was natural that this elections not to bring about the expected results”. But, between 12 December 2011; the date of the municipal elections, and 26 February 2012; the date of the referendum on the new constitution, security situation worsened.

Then, why did the Syrian regime insist on organising the referendum on the new constitution?

The most plausible reason could have been the regime’s urgent need to convince Syrian opposition, as well as the international community, that the regime is serious about political reform. Thus, consequently, to use ‘constitutional reform’ as a new starting point towards achieving a political settlement in Syria, especially after the failure of security solution that has been tried for over a year to suppress protests against the regime.

Unfortunately, and according to the articles of the new constitution, such reason/ explanation has no basis. The so-called a ‘New Constitution’ is a mere amendment to the 1973 Constitution.

It is true that the ‘New Constitution’ has recognised political pluralism instead of the leading role of the Baath Party; and prevented (theoretically) President Assad from staying in power after the year 2028! Nevertheless, the ‘New Constitution’ preserves the main characteristics of the political system under the former constitution; especially the absolute power that the President enjoys.

According to 2012 Constitution, and as exactly as it was stated in 1973 Constitution: “The President cannot be held responsible for actions pertaining directly to his duties, except in the case of high treason. A request for his indictment requires a proposal of at least one-third of the members of the People’s Assembly and an Assembly decision adopted by a two-thirds majority in an open vote at a special secret session. His trial takes place only before the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Such complete immunity is granted to the President who, inter alia, is “the chief commander of the military and the armed forces,” and the head of Executive and Judicial Authorities. Accordingly, he appoints “civil and military officials and terminates their services;” nominates “one vice President or more and may assign some of his duties to him/them;” appoints “the Prime Minister and his Deputies and the Ministers and their Deputies, accepts their resignations, and dismisses them from their posts;”approves “the public policy of the State and oversees its implementation;” and appoints members (Judges) of ‘The Supreme Constitutional Court’.

In addition, the President can bypass the People’s Assembly (Parliament) at any time and enact laws. Furthermore, the President with his cabinet “may announce and cancel states of emergency”. Also, “In case of grave danger which threatens national unity or the safety and independence of the homeland, or hinders the state’s institutions from undertaking their constitutional duties, the President may take quick action required by the circumstances to face the danger.” And he enjoys these authorities without any kind of monitoring or supervision, not even from ‘The Supreme Constitutional Court’.

Taking all this into consideration, how should the new-old constitution be seen? Rather than being perceived as a move towards reform, the 2012 Constitution is actually a ‘preemptive step’ to hinder any genuine reform and maintain the status quo. In brief, the alleged ‘constitutional reform’ is nothing but a ‘reform to end all reform!’ To make it clear, Assad and his regime are getting ready for the worst case scenario, which is a national dialogue with the opposition. Consequently, to prevent any real concessions in the future that might threaten their absolute power; the President and his regime have made these ‘minor’ changes in advance, and according to their own criteria and standards.

At this point, it seems obvious that the main aim of the Syrian regime is to contain the protests rather than to meet real nee of the people. But after more than a year of protests, and thousands of casualties, such fake steps to reform will only be a gamble with the future of Syria and its people, and nothing less!

This article was published in full (and in Norwegian) in Mandag Morgen Magazine. To read it in full please click here.