Aleppo sacrificed for the sake of next round of talks
BEIRUT - Preparations are under way for a mid-May round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva under UN auspices. Neither side is ready to compromise, however, unless pressured by developments on the battlefield. A ceasefire would be the result of the peace talks and certainly not a precondition, which explains why the northern city of Aleppo is being reduced to rubble.
Politically, there have been two major developments in the Syrian war. One is the new constitutional draft; second is a basket of ideas regarding a political transition, put forward in April by UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The draft, written by lawmakers in Damascus, was presented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to US Secretary of State John Kerry in March in Moscow.
It is being studied by Robert Malley and Alexander Lavrentiev, special envoys of the US and Russian presidents respectively, and is expected to see the light by August. This deadline was pencilled in by Kerry during his latest visit to Moscow and that is also when the Geneva process is scheduled to terminate.
Russia is peddling the new constitution, rejected by Saudi Arabia and its Syrian opposition allies, as the crux of the “new Syria”. It will emphasise “secularism” of the state, fitting nicely with the Syrian government’s self-portrayal as the secular protector of minorities, waging a war against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
The draft deletes Article 3 of the current constitution, which has been in place since 1920. It says: “Islam is the religion of the president of the republic.” This is music to the ears of secular groups and Syria’s minorities who have argued they are first-class citizens and should be given their constitutional rights by the presidency.
These minorities rallied behind the Syrian government after 2011, fearing for their future because of the leftist Islamification of the Syrian street and the dramatic rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.
Another amendment would restore a clause from the 1950 constitution allowing presidential elections by parliament rather than by popular vote, as has happened since the early 1970s.
The suggested change would disqualify at least 5 million Syrians living abroad — most of them from the opposition — from voting in any presidential election, as by law citizens living outside Syria cannot vote in parliamentary elections, only presidential polls.
It also gives the Ba’ath Party enough leverage to influence any future election. The Ba’ath, in power since 1963, controls parliament through a vast client network of interests, corruption, and services — topped with 2.5 million Ba’athists who dominate the civil service.
In any election — even those subject to international monitoring — they would get the lion’s share of seats and vote for Syrian President Bashar Assad if parliament nominates him. The Ba’ath took 200 of the 250 assembly seats in the April elections.
The constitutional draft keeps the presidential term at seven years and says that an incumbent can serve for only two consecutive terms. This is rejected by the Syrian opposition. However, if Moscow gets its way, Assad would be able to run for two additional terms from whenever early elections are called after the new constitution goes into effect in mid-2017.
The opposition is calling for presidential elections in late 2017, without Assad. Moscow, Tehran and Damascus insist these elections must take place as scheduled in 2021. Many speculate that the two sides will meet halfway and polling will occur in 2018-19.
The opposition insists that a Transitional Government Body (TGB) should be formed, as called for during the 2012 Geneva I conference, vested with full presidential powers and ruling instead of Assad.
The Riyadh-backed opposition insists on nothing less, claiming that it is willing to give 50% of its seats to the pro-regime camp — provided Assad steps down beforehand. The regime insists the TGB is “not only unconstitutional, but also illegal”, while the Russians claim that when this was agreed four years ago, there was no Islamic State and no Russian military intervention.
A TGB, they insist, is now a thing of the past and suggest instead a “cabinet of national unity” signed off by Assad that divides seats evenly between the regime, its opponents, and political independents, giving ten to each.
De Mistura suggests a third path: a six-man “presidential council” to rule with full executive powers. Headed by Assad, it would include two vice-presidents from the opposition and two from the regime, with one independent.
Another option is for Assad to remain in office during the transition but with three vice-presidents, all from the opposition, for military, political and financial affairs.
Constitutionally, the vice-president would assume control if the presidency becomes vacant.
Right now all these suggestions are too abstract for either side to accept, which explains why Aleppo is being devastated in expectations that its flames will force both sides to meet halfway in Geneva.