Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has proclaimed that the Syrian people “do not want to change the constitution” and that “it is not a priority.” He has said that the Syrians “only want amendments that impact their daily lives” and has described residents of areas in the northeast of Syria that are not under his control as “terrorists.” He has threatened the US and Turkish military, describing the West as “supporting terrorism” and strongly praising Russia.
In an interview with the Russian news service Sputnik News on 10 October, Al-Assad said that “we changed the constitution in 2012, and now we are discussing the constitution again at the Geneva talks. But the Geneva process is a political game that most Syrians are not interested in. The Syrian people are not thinking about the constitution, and no one is talking about it. They are interested in reform and policies that must be amended to meet their needs.”
Al-Assad also launched an attack on the US, Turkey and Europe, saying that they were “assisting” terrorism in Syria and describing the US and Turkish military presence in Syria as an “occupation”. If their troops did not leave Syria, he would resort to “popular resistance, like in Iraq,” he added.
He said that resorting to international law was not an option, since “it does not exist.” He reiterated that those in control of northeast Syria, notably the province of Idlib, were terrorists, saying it was unlikely there would be a chance for reconciliation or a political solution. “Most foreign terrorists in Syria are clustered in these areas,” Al-Assad said. “They must either leave for Turkey, where they came from or came through, or return home, or die in Syria.”
Al-Assad praised Moscow politically and militarily and for its Covid-19 vaccine, which he said he would be willing to use. He denied that there were any Iranian forces in Syria, saying that any Iranian military experts were operating in Syria solely under the direction of the Syrian military. The Iranian issue was merely “a pretext” for the US to continue “occupying Syrian territory and supporting terrorists,” he said.
Everything Al-Assad said in his interview with Sputnik News was almost identical to statements he made six months ago in an interview with the Syrian media and one year ago with another Russian outlet. However, if anything his statements were more radical and more assertive, mocking the demands of the Syrian people who have been in revolt against the regime for nearly a decade.
Although Al-Assad insists there is no need for constitutional change in Syria, the Syrian regime is still participating in the Geneva talks primarily focused on changing the constitution through the Constitutional Committee formed of three categories of participants. One third of the Committee is made up of members of the Syrian opposition, one third of representatives of the regime and one third of independents and representatives of civil society.
The third round of talks ended on 27 August without any progress or positive results, typical of all the political tracks attempting to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, whether in Geneva, Astana or Sochi. According to the opposition, the Constitutional Committee has failed due to “the regime’s continuing its policies of obstructionism, procrastination and voiding the discussions of content.”
Observers say the regime has been playing a double game, first by rejecting the framework of the Constitutional Committee or insisting that the existing 2012 Constitution is the law of the land. Second, it has sent a negotiating team to the committee merely to give the impression that it is responsive and open to dialogue, observers say. However, this dialogue is always marginal and does not address core constitutional issues, the president’s extended mandate, the concentration of powers, the inflated role of the security agencies and the absence of oversight, all key issues that the opposition wants to change.
The Constitutional Committee began its meetings in October 2019, and it continues to discuss principles, definitions and legal matters. However, not once has it directly addressed the core of the matter, always avoiding the constitutional process, according to the opposition delegation. For the regime, the committee has been “discussing basic principles, national identity and belonging to the homeland.”
Yet, Al-Assad said in his recent interview that the Syrian people “do not want to change the 2012 Constitution,” which gives quasi-monarchical powers to the president. Any decisions made by the Constitutional Committee will also not have the force of law.
According to Alaa Jabr, a Syrian political analyst, “Russia says it wants Damascus to participate in the constitutional process and launch a reform process inside the country. It says that it is trying to convince Syria to carry out reforms in return for Russian mediation in lifting the sanctions imposed by the US. However, recent meetings with a Russian delegation that visited Damascus on 6 September and including Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Russian Envoy to the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov showed that Damascus is not interested in a new constitution or reform.”
“This will likely create problems between Moscow and Damascus sooner or later, because if the Constitutional Committee does not make progress Russia’s presence in Syria will be more ambiguous. The lack of legal clarity on the Russian presence will make the security conditions more dangerous for Russian soldiers and will also negatively impact the international role that Russia is trying to play,” Jabr said.
In the same interview, Al-Assad said he had not yet decided whether he would run for president again and would make an announcement early next year. This is unusual for the five-decade rule of the Al-Assad family in Syria, since it has historically seen the presidency as an “inherited right.”
For observers, it is clear that Al-Assad plans to strengthen his political and military hand primarily via Russian support, though recently there have been indications that this support could shrink. Last month, the Russian media launched a campaign not in Al-Assad’s favour, indicating that Russia could be beginning to abandon him.
The first report published by the Russian Federal News Agency reported on “terrible economic conditions” in Syria and accused the regime of corruption. Al-Assad “has weak control of the situation on the ground, and the power in Syria is in the hands of the bureaucracy,” it said. The report also accused the Syrian regime of “lying” to the Syrian people by publishing false reports about military attacks by the Islamic State (IS) group in order to justify power outages in areas under regime control.
Another report by the Russian news agency said that Al-Assad was “disliked” by his people and that only 32 per cent of Syrians said they supported him. A third report discussed Al-Assad’s apparent inability to manage the political situation in Syria, saying he did not have the will to stamp out corruption in his family circle.
A report published in the Russian newspaper Pravda focused on major problems in the Syrian economy and the allegedly corrupt ways of the Al-Assad family. It concluded that Al-Assad “could lose half the country” because of the actions of his relatives.
Such reports in the Russian media were preceded by reports on social media in Syria about unknown figures who could be candidates for the presidency. However, Al-Assad’s most recent interview with the Russian media implies that the weeks and months to come will not see changes at the top of the regime.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly