On July 17, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was sworn in for a fourth seven-year term following an election that the U.S. and European Union called a sham.
The 55-year-old Assad pledged an oath to Syria’s constitution and the Quran at the Presidential Palace in Damascus, where 600 people attended.
In an inaugural speech that lasted for more than an hour, Assad addressed an upcoming United Nations-facilitated constitutional process for the country. Basically, he dismissed the idea, describing it as a means to “create a void that leads to chaos.”
“The constitution is a priority that cannot be a subject for negotiations nor bargaining, because it is the homeland’s title and the people’s decision,” said Assad.
But that is misleading. In fact, Assad has been stalling the start of the U.N.-backed Constitutional Committee that aims to put an end to a decade of civil war and form a transitional government.
The Assad family has ruled Syria for 51 years. Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez Assad. He previously has said he would not engage in any talks with his Syrian opponents in the war, who were backed by the United States and Turkey.
The constitutional effort has been in the works for years.
In December 2016, the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Russia agreed to hold Syria peace talks in Astana, pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which a year earlier endorsed a road map for a peace process in Syria and set a timetable for talks.
U.N.-sponsored peace talks, known as the Geneva process, failed to stop the hostilities in Syria. In 2017, the U.N. envoy to Syria, Geir Otto Pedersen, attended the Astana meetings to facilitate the talks and “compare notes and to make further progress on the different issues related to implementation of the Security Council Resolution 2254.”
The current Syrian constitution was approved by the government in 2012, after the civil unrest and war erupted the previous year. The constitution is a revised version of a 1973 constitution put together under Assad’s father after he conducted a purge to solidify his power. The constitution of 1973 gave the Assad-led Baath Party total control over the country.
At the start of the unrest in Syria in 2011, protesters had demanded constitutional change and the formation of a new government that would end Assad family rule. The Syrian regime responded by writing the new charter in 2012. Changes halted one-party rule but kept Assad firmly in power and allowed for elections that could keep him there for another 16 years.
Although Syrian media said the charter received 89 per cent approval in a February 2012 referendum, Western officials and the Syrian opposition said it was a sham vote.
In 2015, as Syria’s civil war dragged on, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2254, which called for a nationwide ceasefire followed by negotiations and a political transition that would “set a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution.”
Four years later, in September 2019, a Constitutional Committee was formed, bringing together representatives from the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society. However, the committee’s meetings to discuss a new constitution have repeatedly hit dead ends.
This past January, the U.N.'s Pedersen spoke of a “lack of engagement” by the Syrian government delegation after it rejected a charter proposal.
Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the opposition coalition called the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), said the Syrian government delegation wasted time by going into unrelated issues and claiming that the Syrian opposition is not legitimate.
Opposition officials said the Assad delegation also delayed progress by arguing about a new flag and anthem.
In March, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, urged Assad ally Russia to pressure Syria to “quit stalling,” and put an end to a decade of war.
“There’s only one reason we have not been able to enact this solution and resolve this crisis: the Assad regime’s refusal to engage in good faith. The regime has not taken a single step that would lay the groundwork for peace,” she said.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Syria’s war spawned the world’s largest refugee crisis, with more than 6.6 million people fleeing the country and another 6.7 million internally displaced.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based Syria war monitor, 387,118 Syrians had been killed in the conflict as of December 2020, mostly at the hands of Assad forces and the Islamic State terror group.