As promised by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the country will hold a referendum on the new constitution on February 26. The draft constitution suggests putting an end over 50-year of single-party rule in Syria. Hundreds of copies will be printed and distributed to people before they vote on the new changes of the law. But with parts of the country in open rebellion, an army onslaught on the third largest city – Homs, it is unclear how a nationwide poll can be effectively conducted.
Authorities say 14.6 million of Syria’s 23 million people are eligible to vote and 14,000 polling stations have been set up for the referendum. But with cities such as Homs in open revolt, Syrians are divided over the draft constitution and the timing chosen for the vote. Nabil Samman, the head of the Centre for Research and Documentation in Damascus, told Al Jazeera that the draft constitution allows the president to retain most of his powers.
“The timing in light of the violence is very wrong. There are areas that have no security at all. There are other areas where people are scared. The time between the release of the draft constitution and the voting time is very short.” Samman added that there was little time for the public to debate and discuss about it. “The opposition inside Syria has no chance to voice their opinion of it on national TV.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told BBC at the news conference: “On one hand you say you are holding a referendum and on the other you are attacking with tank fire on civilian areas. You still think the people will go to a referendum the next day in the same city?”
New constitution ensures separation of powers?
The Syrian Arab News Agency released the full text of the draft constitution, it contains 157 articles, of which there are 14 new and 47 amended articles. The new constitution emphasizes on political pluralism and drops a clause which effectively granted Assad’s Baath Party a monopoly on power, instead as stated in Article 8:
“The political system of the state shall be based on the principle of political pluralism, and exercising power democratically through the ballot box.”
However under the same article, the new text forbids political activity or parties based on “religious, sectarian, tribal (or) regional” basis, this can prevent the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood registering, and also restrict parties representing minority Kurds.
From Article 83 to 117, it lays down the power and execution of the president of Syria, who holds real power to declare war or a state of emergency, can draft laws and assumes legislative authority when parliament is not sitting. Parliamentary elections will be held within 90 days of the approval of the constitution, state television reported. If passed, it would restrict the president to serving a maximum of two terms of seven years and introduce a pluralistic party system. The seven-year presidential term was adapted by Hafez al-Assad with reference to French constitution of Charles de Gulle, but when the French reformed its constitution, the Assad regime found its advantages of stability in terms of governance.
If Bashar al-Assad runs for the president again, his second term expires in 2014. Bashar was elected in 2000 when his father Hafez al-Assad was dead after ruling Syria for 29 years. Another clause in the constitution says laws will not apply retro-actively, implying that Assad could serve another two terms until 2028, by that time Bashar will be in his 60s, having ruled Syria for 28 years. In addition, the president must have lived in Syria for 10 years, a requirement which would rule out many of Assad’s opponents who have lived in exile for years.
Progress at the Friends of Syrian conference in Tunis
Representatives from more than 60 Western and Arab countries met in ‘Friends of Syria’ International conference in Tunisia in the previous weekend. The conference aims at calling for an immediate ceasefire, to work out for details of 72-hour ultimatum and to allow humanitarian assistance for civilians. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was appointed as a special envoy in efforts at ending “violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.”
The Economist published the article “How to set Syria free” revealed that an united opposition was a solution to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. The view is similar to Joshua Landis, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, told CBC news about the divisions among the opposition group:
“There’s the Islamists versus the secularists; there’s the young versus the old; there’s the inside leaders who are on the streets versus the SNC [Syrian National Council] type leaders … who have been out of the country for a long time and who are very savvy at talking to the West. There are also, he points out, ethnic divisions between Kurds and Arabs as well as religious divisions between the minorities and Muslims.”
There are different opposition groups in Syria. Here’s the list:
Syrian National Council (SNC)
The SNC is currently led by Burhan Ghalioun, an exiled secularist who taught political science at the Sorbonne in Paris before assuming the chairmanship of the coalition. It has roots from the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, a statement signed in 2005 by members of both the secular and Muslim opposition in Syria (including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed in Syria since the 1960s and death penalty since 1980s). The Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Mohammad Riad Shaqfa has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia, has said it would not seek to make Syria an Islamist state. The council also includes representatives of Kurdish factions and smaller grass-roots groups as well as tribal leaders and independent opposition leaders. Members of the council are clearly divided themselves and vague on whether they would support a foreign military intervention, with some voicing support for actions short of intervention such as a no-fly zone.
National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB)
The group is led by Hassan Abdul Azim, a moderate dissident in his 80s who has been a prominent member of Syria’s socialist movement since the 1960s. It is made up of secularists within Syria who favour a peaceful transition of power without any military intervention and who are willing to negotiate with the Assad regime. It signed a co-operation agreement with the SNC in December 2011 outlining a post-Assad transition to democracy, but the pact fell apart when the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions within the SNC accused SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun of negotiating the pact without their input.
Free Syrian Army
It is nominally led by Col. Riad al-Asaad, a defector from the Syrian military who is attempting to coordinate the fighters from a refugee camp in Turkey. In reality, bands of fighters within Syria have been largely operating independently of al-Asaad and each other, launching their own attacks on troop convoys and other actions against government forces. The current problem of FSA is that it does not have regular access to military supplies, the defectors usually purchase weapons on the black market. The number of Free Syrian Army fighters is unknown, but al-Asaad told the Reuters news agency in Ocotber 2011 that 15,000 soldiers had defected from the Syrian military. Even if the total number of opposition fighters is more than that, it’s still nowhere near the Syrian army’s estimated 200,000 soldiers, along with an unknown number of state-sponsored militia fighters (known in Arabic asshabiha), who are considered even more loyal than the military, since they generally come from the same Alawite sect that Assad belongs to. The FSA has also suffered from its own internal divisions, according to a scholar Randa Slim at the Middle East Institute. Recently, General Mustapha Sheikh, an officer who defected from the Syrian Army, formed a new organization the “Higher Military Council” claiming to lead armed defectors inside Syria.
At this point, it’s worth to take note that the Hamas leadership has left Syria due to the regime’s crackdown. Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyasaid began supporting the opposition of Assad regime, he told the New York Times, “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.”
How can fractious opposition stand up as one?
There is an agreement between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Military Council to form a “Ministry of Defense” for the Syrian revolution, after the conference in Tunis. Some progresses have been made out of the congress, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal supported to arm the oppositional group and revolutionaries.
However, political activist Shabbir Razvi told RT that the conference representatives are not working for the interest of Syrian people. “The Western powers would never be satisfied with any kind of change occurring in Syria or any of the other Middle Eastern countries so long as that change is not in the interest or benefit of the Western powers.”
While China Daily cited the source from the state-run SANA news agency: “The conference came as a result of a failed plot targeting Syria and its people. Syria also totally rejects any calls to arm the oppositions, as we consider it a move of support to terrorists that would hurt the Syrian people and their hope for peace and stability.” Syrian state TV referred to the conference as a meeting of “symbols of colonialism” and said the countries attending were “historic enemies of the Arabs.”
The Syria Report mentioned that a report released by the United Nations and submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, accuses the Syrian government of committing “gross human rights violations” tantamount to “crimes against humanity”. The report, derived from 360 interviews with individuals inside Syria, also charges that security crackdowns constituted state policy from coming from “the highest levels of the armed forces and the government”. The same report, however, also charges the Free Syrian Army, an armed element of the opposition, of committing serious abuses. To that end, as violence continues to deepen across the country, Syrian officials continue to adamantly charge that they are fighting against armed terrorist groups – an allegation now partially echoed in some parts of Washington, as a number of senior American officials claim that the terrorist group Al-Qaeda is behind some of the country’s violence.
Does the UN resolution guarantee peaceful situation in Syria?
The latest death toll in Syria from Reuters says it reaches over 5,000, and from the above report, we can tell the human rights situation is deteriorating. While the international society attempts to ceasefire and crackdown on the bloodshed by drafting a resolution S/2012/77 (drafted by Bahrain, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, UK and US), Russia and China vetoed the resolution, which means that the UN Security Council again failed to assume its responsibilities and to live up to its mandate to maintain international peace and security. As the Syrian representative to the UN cited from a quote by former US attorney Ramsey Clark: “The UN, which was created to prevent the scourge of war, has become an instrument of war.”
Russia and China both have condemned the crisis in Syria, however, while Russia said the draft resolution didn’t reflect the real interests of Syrian people and it is not an objective report, also Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would meet in person with Syrian President Basher al-Assad; China, on the other hand, rejected the proposals of intervention from the west, based on its renowned “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence“, which are (1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, (2) mutual non-aggression, (3) mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, (4) equality and mutual benefit, and (5) peaceful co-existence. A Middle East expert Chris Zambelis commented on the Middle East Voices: ” Since 2004, Damascus and Beijing have signed at least a dozen economic agreements, but the approximately $1.2 billion trade relationship between them is for the most part one-way; in 2010, only a quarter of that amount was spent by China on Syrian goods and products.
When will the killing in Syria end?
This is a question raised by people around nations who witness the bloodshed through television and newspaper reports. But when it comes to media coverage, an independent journalist representing for Press TV and Russia Today, Lizzie Phelan, revealed that the NATO and GCC media organizations represented the agenda of their own countries’ foreign policy in their coverage in Syria. Phelan was being interviewed by New York Times Robert Mackney, and she thought the questions were deceitful, so she explained the fabrication in details on her blog. She believed that all these media “provided narrative to support the foreign intervention in Syria at the UN Security Council meeting”.
Let’s remember our most respected war journalist – Marie Colvin (1956-2012)
Somehow Phelan’s account of the event does explain why the famous war reporter Marie Colvin was being killed by Syrian government forces. The British journalist Marie Colvin reported about a dead baby the day before she got killed in the Babr region in Homs last week. Here’s her final report for the Sunday Times: We live in a fear of massacre.
And here are some collections of articles about her perseverance.
We lost a great one by Sarah Topol
Roy Greenslade’s orbiturary
How to halt the butchery in Syria’ (Anne-Marie Slaughter, New York Times)
‘Arab Spring cleaning’ (The Economist)