Exclusive: Syrian-proposed names for constitutional committee revealed

List suggests Damascus is not serious about constitutional reform as only two have background in law

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Thursday, May 17, 2018. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)


Damascus: This week, Damascus presented a list of proposed names for a constitutional committee to the United Nations which Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad agreed to form earlier this year.

The list, which Gulf News was made aware of, put forth this week includes 50 names, some of which will be likely be crossed off in the coming days to make room for members of the opposition.

The names put forth suggest Damascus is not serious about constitutional reform as only two members have a law background.

The two lawyers are members of both the UN-sponsored Geneva and Russian-sponsored Sochi talks: Amal Yazagi, a professor at Damascus University, and Ahmad Al Kouzbari, a member of Parliament.

Other names include Ahmad Arnous, a former ambassador to Canada and ex-Assistant Foreign Minister, Talib Kadi Ameen, a former Deputy Information Minister, Turki Hasan, a military analyst, Raed Wakaf, a television host, Anisa Aboud, a writer, and Mousa Abdul Nour, president of the Journalists Syndicate.

Notable on the list are a handful of parliamentarians, mostly from the ruling Baath Party, like Khalid Al Aboud (Dara’a), Shireen Yousuf (Idlib), Maha Al Ojaili (Raqqa), Khalid Khazaal (Al Quneitra), Safwan Korabi (Idlib), Raymond Helal (Zabadani in the Damascus Countryside), in addition to the Armenian MP Noura Arissian and Damascus MPs Akram Ajlany and Tarif Kotrash, a retired basketball player.

By coming up with such a list, Damascus seemingly wants to downgrade the process, injecting hardliners to disrupt any real democratic changes that might get suggested by the opposition, preventing all players from real dialogue, or from drafting a solid constitution.

Several institutions are present on the committee, like Damascus University, through its president Maher Al Kabakibi, the Students Union, and the Workers Union, through member of its Executive Committee Bashir Halbouni, also a Baathist from Qaboon in the Damascus Countryside.

Formation of the committee, which will rewrite the Syrian constitution, was agreed at a Syrian peace conference in the Russian ski resort of Sochi in January. It is up to de Mistura to decide whom to pick.

UN Special Envoy to Syrian Stephan De Mistura’s spokeswoman Reem Esmail said the UN was carefully studying the list of names but declined to comment further.

De Mistura has said he will select about 50 people, including supporters of the government, the opposition and independents.

The main opposition negotiating group has agreed to cooperate as long as the committee is formed under UN auspices.

Russia has held the balance of power in Syria, both on the battlefield and in the UN-led peace talks, for the past two years.

It has helped Al Assad recover huge amounts of lost territory in Syria without persuading him to agree to any political reforms.

The UN Security Council, which includes Russia and the United States, has mandated de Mistura to get a deal on a new constitution, new elections and a reform of Syria’s governance.

But nine rounds of talks, most of them in Geneva, have failed to bring the warring sides together to end a seven-year-old conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.

Al Assad’s government announced in 2012 that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum, conducted amid civil war, that was derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.

The new basic law maintained real power in the presidency but dropped a clause that in effect granted Al Assad’s Baath Party a monopoly on power.

Sticking points in the forthcoming constitution debate is the term and authority of the Syrian Presidency.

According to the 2012 Constitution, the president can hold only two consecutive terms from the date of the charter’s implementation, with no reverse effect.

Meaning if a new constitution is approved, Al Assad would get two additional terms when his present term expires in 2021.

The presidential term in Syria is seven years—one of the longest in the world—based on the former French model.

Syrian lawmakers want to scrap the article limiting the presidential term and insist on keeping a handful of powers in the hands of the presidency, like that of chairing the judiciary and the executive branch or naming the governor of the Central Bank.

In a proposed Russian draft put forth two years ago, those rights were taken away but the presidency was allowed to keep the far more important authority over the army and security services.

Additionally, the Russian draft changed the name of the country from “Syrian Arab Republic” to “Syrian Republic” in order to please non-Arab components of society, like the Kurds, Circassians, Turkmens, and Armenians, something that was strongly vetoed by the Arab Nationalists.

Currently there is no timetable for the committee to complete a new constitution.

The regime is calling for “review” that would eventually lead to amendments, within the present parliament rather than through a constitutional assembly, with suggestions to hold a referendum at the end of the process.

Damascus is also insisting on “half plus one” to maintain a majority vote within the committee, while the opposition is calling for the opposite.

It also insists that this is a “committee” and not an “assembly” with no constitutional authority to change the constitution itself.

-with inputs from Reuters

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