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Arab no more: Russia plans Syria name change in draft constitution

The Syrian Arab Republic, ruled by the pan-Arabist Baath party, now risks losing its 'Arab' middle name
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in his office in Damascus in 1972 (AFP)

A draft Syrian constitution prepared by Russia suggests that the word “Arab” will be removed from the official name of the Syrian Arab Republic, currently ruled by a faction of the pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party.

Russia’s constitutional proposals were revealed during the Astana peace talks this week, according to Sputnik.

As far back as June 2016, the state-owned Russian news agency reported: "Russia suggested that Syria should change its official name from the Syrian Arab Republic to the Republic of Syria, in order to appeal to ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Turkmen."

Pre-war Syria had a 74 percent majority Arab population; nine percent were Kurds and there were about 100,000 Turkmen.

Senior Syrian Baath figures at a rally in Damascus in 1997 to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the party (AFP)
According to Sputnik, the draft constitution says: "The Syrian Republic is an independent democratic sovereign state based on the principles of people and supremacy of law and equality and social unity and respect of the rights and the liberties of all citizens without any differentiation. The names of the Syrian Republic and Syria are equal.”

Sputnik suggested the move was linked to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the future status of Kurdish regions in Syria.

"The Kurdish cultural self-ruling systems and its organisations use both the Arabic and Kurdish languages equally," the draft read. "Upon the national heritage, which promotes national unity, the cultural diversity of the Syrian society will be ensured."

Any Kurdish autonomy would be strictly cultural, as opposed to political or economic, with the draft stating: "Any loss of Syrian territories is not acceptable, change of state borders can only be allowed through a general referendum with the participation of all citizens."

Arabism, Assadism, and Baathism

The Baath ('Renaissance') Party was co-founded in 1947 by Syrian Arab nationalist thinkers Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. In 1952, it merged with Syrian Akram al-Hawrani’s Arab Socialist Party to create the Arab Socialist Baath Party.

The party seized power in Syria in 1963, but within three years the founders of the Baath Party were purged from their own movement in a military coup led by Salah Jadid, who would become de facto leader, and Hafez al-Assad, who would become minister of defence.

In 1970 Hafez al-Assad launched his own coup and seized power for himself.

Syrian president Hafez al-Assad waves to MPs during his fifth swearing-in ceremony in Damascus in March 1999 (AFP)
Hafez sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, starting a relationship with Russia that continues to this day.

Baathism remained the state ideology despite Hafez's moving away from the pursuit of Arab unification, and the purging of founding figures.

In 1970, Hafez imprisoned his co-conspirator Jadid, who later died in prison in 1993.

Aflaq was purged by Jadid and Hafez in 1966 but found refuge in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Saddam was also Baathist, but vehemently opposed to Assad’s Syria.

Al-Bitar, also purged in 1966, fled to Europe and was killed in Paris in 1980, reportedly on Hafez’s orders.

Michel Aflaq was purged from his own movement by Hafez, and fled to Saddam's Iraq (AFP)
Hafez would rule Syria for 30 years, until he was succeeded by his son Bashar in 2000.

In 2012, Bashar al-Assad amended the constitution, which had been in effect since 1973, to remove Article 8 that stated: “The leading party in the society and the state is the Socialist Arab Baath Party.”

In its preamble, the current Syrian constitution says: “Throughout its long history, the Arab civilisation, being part of the human heritage, has faced huge challenges aimed at breaking its will and subjecting it to colonial domination.

“The Syrian Arab Republic is proud of its Arab identity and of its people forming an integral part of the Arab nation, manifested in ongoing national and regional contributions and an ongoing endeavour to support Arab cooperation towards the unity of the Arab nation.”

This is reinforced in the constitution’s very first article, which states: “The Syrian Arab Republic is a democratic state with full sovereignty, that cannot be divided nor have any part of its land waived and is part of the Arab world. The people of the Syrian Arab Republic are part of the Arab nation.”

Syria’s sovereignty

Salah al-Din al-Bitar was purged by Hafez, and assassinated in exile in Paris in 1980 (AFP)
Syria’s government has had to rely on foreign fighters and countries to stay in power.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Syria would give Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming, and 1,000 hectares for setting up oil and gas terminals.

Iranian state media said Tehran was already involved in $660m of electricity generation projects in Syria. Iran is also aiming to export electricity to Syria and “create the biggest power network in the Islamic world by hooking up Iran's national grid with those of Iraq and Lebanon”, according to Reuters.

Last week, Russia signed a military agreement with Syria to more than double the space for its warships at its Tartus naval base, under a 49-year lease that could automatically renew for a further 25 years, the New York Times reported.

A similar long-term agreement was signed regarding the Russian-built Khmeimim air base in Latakia, where Russia is reportedly already adding a second runway.

From president to parliament

Salah Jadid seized power with Hafez, before being toppled himself and dying in prison (AFP)
Russia also aimed to “substantially” limit the powers of the Syrian presidency in its draft constitution, so as to make Assad’s resignation unnecessary, and simultaneously strengthen the powers of parliament, according to Sputnik.

"The president is elected for a period of seven years… the re-election of the same individual to the post of president is prohibited except for one additional term," the draft said of the presidency.

Regarding the parliament, it said: "The People’s Assembly will be responsible for… decisions on war and peace issues, the removal of the president from the office, appointment of the members of the Supreme Constitutional Court."

The draft also omitted reference to Article 111 of the current Syrian constitution that gives the president the right to dissolve parliament. The president does, however, retain the right to call a national referendum on “important topics pertaining to the supreme interests of the country”.

Article 3 of the current Syrian constitution stipulates that the president must be “part of the Muslim faith” and that “Islamic jurisprudence doctrine is a primary source of legislation”.

This was omitted in Russia’s draft.

Sunni Muslims make up about 75 percent of Syria’s population, and Shias 13 percent – including the Alawite sect from which Assad hails. Christians make up almost all of the remainder.

Russia in the Middle East

Alexander Lavrentyev, the head of Russian delegation to the Astana talks, said on Tuesday: "I want to emphasise, we have done this solely for the reason that we want to accelerate this process and to give it some additional pacing, we are in no way interfering in the process of consideration and adoption of the constitution." 

Echoing this sentiment, Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Russian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told Sputnik on Thursday: "Syria's constitution will be created and accepted by the Syrian people themselves, it is their sovereign right. The task is not to do this important work on behalf of them, but to end a stalemate." 

On the same day, however, Syrian opposition representatives rejected consideration of Russia’s proposals out of hand, arguing that the constitution being drafted by a foreign power was reason enough not to adopt it.

Syrian opposition delegate Yahya al-Aridi said: “The experience of Paul Bremer in Iraq is quite clear - when a constitution is written by another country, politically it won’t work.”

A 2015 poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that Russia’s average unfavourability rating in the Middle East (Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestinian territories) stood at 55 percent – higher than the global average of 51 percent.

In the same poll carried out in the same countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal unfavourability ratings were at 56.6 percent.

Russia was viewed more unfavourably in the Middle East than even the United States, it found, with 25 percent of the region having a favourable view of the former compared to 29 percent for the latter.

Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (L) shakes hands with Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev at the Kremlin in 1980 (AFP)

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