What the Syrian Constitution Says About Assad and the Rebels

(By Stephen Gowans) 

The idea that the uprising against the Syrian government is inspired by a grassroots movement thirsting for a pluralist, democratic state is a fiction. The opposition’s chief elements are Islamists who seek to establish a Sunni-dominated Islamic state in place of a Syrian government they revile for being secular and dominated by Alawi “heretics.” “Al Qaeda-linked groups…dominate rebel ranks,” notes The Wall Street Journal. [1] “There is frustration with the West’s inability to help nurture a secular military or political opposition to replace Mr. Assad,” echoes The New York Times. [2] “Islamic forces seem to be ascendant within the opposition,” observes Gerald F. Seib. [3]

Indeed, almost from the opening moments of the latest outbreak of Islamic unrest in Syria, the government has said that while some protesters have legitimate grievances, the uprising is driven by militant Islamists with foreign backing.” [4] It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia and Qatar- monarchies which abominate democracy—are furnishing Islamist militants with arms, while Turkey, Jordan, Israel, France, Britain and the United States are also lending support.

Syria’s post-colonial history is punctuated by Islamist uprisings. The Muslim Brotherhood organized riots against the government in 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1969. It called for a Jihad against then president Hafiz al-Assad, the current president’s father, denigrating him as “the enemy of Allah.” By 1977, the Mujahedeen were engaged in a guerrilla struggle against the Syrian army and its Soviet advisers, culminating in the 1982 occupation of the city of Hama. The Syrian army quelled the occupation, killing 20,000 to 30,000. Islamists have since remained a perennial source of instability in Syria and the government has been on continual guard against “a resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists.” [5] The resurgence, touched off by uprisings in surrounding countries, prompted Glen E. Robinson to write in Current History that the rebellion was a continuation of “Syria’s Long Civil War.” [6]

But the Western media, echoing former colonialist powers and high officials in Washington, would call it something different: a popular, grassroots uprising against a brutal dictator. Today, however, the flood of YouTube videos by Islamic terrorists, chronicling their killings of POWs, eviscerations of captured soldiers, and barbecuing of heads, has spoiled the narrative. It’s no longer possible to angelize the Syrian rebellion as a popular insurrection against dictatorship. Now even the Wall Street Journal and New York Times share Assad’s view.

Still, the rebels’ spin doctors aren’t yielding entirely. They insist that while the rebellion may be dominated by religious fanatics with a penchant for terrorism, that it wasn’t always so. Instead, they say, it began as a peaceful plea for democracy that was eventually hijacked by jihadists only after the government used brute force to crush a protest movement. At that point, protesters were forced to take up arms in self-defense.

This view is dishonest. To start, it sweeps aside the reality that the rebellion is dominated by Islamists who care not one whit for democracy and indeed are actively hostile to it. What’s more, it conceals the fact that the Assad government made substantial concessions in the direction of creating the kind of pluralist, democratic society the rebels are said to thirst for. The rebels rejected the concessions, and that they did, underscores the fact that the rebellion’s origins are to be found in Islamist, not democratic, ambitions.

In response to protestors’ demands, Damascus made a number of concessions that were neither superficial nor partial.

First, it cancelled the long-standing abridgment of civil liberties that had been authorized by the emergency law. The law, invoked because Syria is technically in a state of war with Israel, gave Damascus powers it needed to safeguard the security of the state in wartime, a measure states at war routinely take. Many Syrians, however, chaffed under the law, and regarded it as unduly restrictive. Bowing to popular pressure, the government lifted the security measures.

Second, the government proposed a new constitution to accommodate protestors’ demands to strip the Ba’ath Party of its special status, which had reserved for it a lead role in Syrian society. Additionally, the presidency would be open to anyone meeting basic residency, age and citizenship requirements. Presidential elections would be held by secret vote every seven years under a system of universal suffrage.

Here was the multi-party democracy the opposition was said to have clamored for. A protest movement thirsting for a democratic, pluralist society could accept the offer, its aspirations fulfilled. The constitution was put to a referendum and approved. New parliamentary multi-party elections were held. Multi-candidate presidential elections were set for 2014. A new democratic dawn had arrived. The rebels could lay down their arms and enjoy the fruits of their victory.

Or so you might expect. Instead, the insurrectionists escalated their war against Damascus, rejecting the reforms, explaining that they had arrived too late. Too late? Does pluralist democracy turn into a pumpkin unless it arrives before the clock strikes twelve? Washington, London and Paris also dismissed Assad’s concessions. They were “meaningless,” they said, without explaining why. [7] And yet the reforms were all the rebels had asked for and that the West had demanded. How could they be meaningless? Democrats, those seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and the Assad government, could hardly be blamed for concluding that “democracy was not the driving force of the revolt.” [8]

Elaborating on this theme, the Syrian president noted:

It was seemingly apparent at the beginning that demands were for reforms. It was utilized to appear as if the crisis was a matter of political reform. Indeed, we pursued a policy of wide scale reforms from changing the constitution to many of the legislations and laws, including lifting the state of emergency law, and embarking on a national dialogue with all political opposition groups. It was striking that with every step we took in the reform process, the level of terrorism escalated. [9]

From Washington’s perspective, the new constitution opened space for alternative political parties. Washington could exploit this new openness to gain leverage in Syria by quietly backing parties that favor pro-US positions—a plus.

From the Islamists’ point of view, however, there were only negatives. First, the constitution was secular, and not rooted in Islam. Second, it proposed to ban political parties or movements that were formed on the basis of religion, sect, tribe, or region, as well as on the basis of gender, origin, race or color. This would effectively ban any party whose aim was to establish an Islamic state.

There were negatives too for Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv.

First, the constitution’s preamble defined Syria as “the beating heart of Arabism,” and “the forefront of confrontation with the Zionist enemy and the bedrock of resistance against colonial hegemony on the Arab world and its capabilities and wealth.” This hardly accorded with Washington’s desire to turn Syria into a “peace-partner” with Israel and clashed with the Western project of spreading neo-colonial tentacles across the Arab world.

Second, the constitution formalized the political orientation of the Syrian Ba’athists. This has been summed up by Assad as “Syria is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [10] Accordingly, the constitution mandated that important sectors of the Syrian economy would remain publicly owned and operated in the interests of Syrians as a whole. Western firms, then, were to be frozen out of profit-making opportunities in key sectors of the Syrian economy, a prospect hardly encouraging to the Wall Street financial interests that dominate decision-making in Washington.

Ba’ath socialism has long irritated Washington. The Ba’athist state has always exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. These are the necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.

Washington’s goals, however, are obviously antithetical. It doesn’t want Syria to nurture its industry and jealously guard its independence, but to serve the interests of the bankers and major investors who truly matter in the United States, by opening Syrian labor to exploitation and Syria’s land and natural resources to foreign ownership.

Prior to Assad drafting the new constitution, the US State Department complained that Syria had “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, had failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department also expressed dissatisfaction that “ideological reasons” had prevented Assad from liberalizing Syria’s economy, that “privatization of government enterprises was still not widespread,” and that the economy “remains highly controlled by the government.” [11]

Were Assad to demonstrate a readiness to appease Wall Street’s demands he would have departed holus bolus from the dirigiste practices that had irritated the State Department. Instead, he did the opposite, drafting a constitution that mandated that the government maintain a role in guiding the economy on behalf of Syrian interests, and that the Syrian government would not make Syrians work for the interests of Western banks, oil companies, and other corporations. This was effectively a slap in Washington’s face.

He then compounded the sin by writing certain social rights into the constitution: security against sickness, disability and old age; access to health care; and free education at all levels. Now these rights would be placed beyond the easy reach of legislators and politicians who could sacrifice them on the altar of creating a low-tax, foreign-investment-friendly climate. To make matters worse, he included an article in the constitution which declared that “taxes shall be progressive.”

Finally, he took a step toward real, genuine democracy—a kind that decision-makers in Washington, with their myriad connections to the banking and corporate world—could hardly tolerate. He included a provision in the constitution requiring that at minimum half the members of the People’s Assembly are to be drawn from the ranks of peasants and workers.

Therein were the real reasons Washington, London and Paris rejected Assad’s concessions. It wasn’t that they weren’t genuine. It was that they were made to the wrong people: to Syrians, rather than Wall Street; to the Arabs, rather than Israel. And nor was it that his reforms weren’t democratic enough. It was that they were too democratic, too focussed on safeguarding and promoting the interests of Syrians, rather than making Syrians promote the interests of Wall Street, Washington and Tel Aviv.

The Syrian constitution clarifies the orientation of the Syrian Ba’athists and underscores why the Syrian government ought to be supported in its struggle against foreign-backed Islamist rebels. In short, because it is, on balance, progressive, and the forces arrayed against it are retrograde. The Syrian government is pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist. It is committed to secularism, non-sectarianism, and public ownership of the commanding heights of its economy. These are values that have traditionally been held high by the political left. Were the Syrian government to fall, it is almost certain that a US-client regime would be implanted in Damascus that would quickly adopt a pro-US foreign policy, abandon the Palestinians, capitulate to Israel, and cater to Western investors and corporations. The left project would, accordingly, be dealt a serious blow, and yet another state, dedicated to national liberation—not to say one with a sufficient democratic orientation to enshrine social rights in its constitution—would be crushed under the steamroller of US imperialism.

1. Adam Entous, “White House readies new aid for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2013.
2. Anne Barnard, “Syria campaigns to persuade U.S. to change sides”, The New York Times, April 24, 2013.
3. Gerald F. Seib, “The risks holding back Obama on Syria”, The Wall Street journal, May 6, 2013.
4. Anthony Shadid, “Assad says he rejects West’s call to resign”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
5. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html
6. December 2012.
7. David M. Herszenhorn, “For Syria, Reliant on Russia for weapons and food, old bonds run deep”, The New York Times, February 18, 2012.
8. Zeina Karam, “In rare public appearance, Syrian president denies role in Houla massacre”, The Associated Press, June 3, 2012.
9. Bashar al-Assad May 19, 2013 interview with Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency
10. Bashar al-Assad May 19, 2013 interview with Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency
11. US State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012.

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