The recent Arab League plan for Syria has aroused more than a stir in Damascus. The league’s new secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, brought the initiative with him to Damascus in early September, discussing it with President Bashar al-Assad.
Anybody familiar with how the Syrian government thinks and operates realized from day one, however, that it would not fly in Damascus.
The deal, the Syrians believed, had been “approved” by United States Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, and had Qatar’s fingerprints all over it; reportedly it was the brainchild of Emir Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, once a close friend of Damascus.
Precisely because of the Qatari connection, the Syrians would not accept it as it stands. By many standards, however, it can be considered the finest “deal” yet for Syria, which has faced months of protests that have resulted in the death of more than 2,000 people.
It could have been a lifejacket for the nation that would end the deadlock between the government and demonstrations which have continued non-stop, despite violence and the rising death toll, since mid-March. By snubbing it, the Syrians probably have lost a golden opportunity.
What they should have done is take it as it stands, then rebrand it as a Syrian initiative – regardless of the Arab League and Qatar – because it is a win-win formula both for the Syrian government and the Syrian street. To quote the Godfather, it was an offer they shouldn’t have, rather than “couldn’t have refused”.
The initiative started out by calling for “an immediate halt” to all violence against civilians, and ending all military operations in Syrian cities. It added that all measures needed to be taken to avoid an outburst of sectarianism “to prevent giving a pretext for any foreign intervention”.
It called for compensation for the families of those who suffered from violence, arrest and persecution since mid-March, and for a general amnesty setting all political prisoners free, along with those who took part in anti-regime demonstrations over the past six months. The Syrian army, it added, would need to withdraw itself from “civil and political life”.
The initiative then called for a “declaration of principles” by the president, outlining the reforms he pledged in all three speeches since March. It called on him to commit to transforming Syria to a multi-party system, using the vast powers currently bestowed in him by the constitution. Legally, based on Article 113, Assad can bypass the legislative and executive branches to pass laws “if the country is facing a crisis that threatens national security and civil peace”.
That clause, by all legal accounts, currently applies to Syria. Meaning, Assad can use this article to hire and fire anybody he pleases, confirm a constitution or abolish the existing one, among other things. Such vast presidential powers, most legal experts say, would not stand once a new constitution went into effect. Although the article is undemocratic, if used for the end objective of a functioning democracy, then nobody minds Assad using it today.
The Arab League plan additionally asked Assad to allow multi-candidate presidential elections to take place once his term expires in July 2014, granting him the right to renominate himself for a third term – if mandated by a popular and fair election.
The initiative also called for the launch of a national dialogue based on equality between the regime, the opposition, the Islamic movements, and the local coordination committees (LCCs) that are in charge of the anti-regime demonstrations in different cities.
These groups, according to the initiative, need to be treated as political equals rather than inferior interlocutors, while making sure that power-sharing is respected and upheld. Dialogue needed to be initiated and supported by the president, and open to all parties regardless of their background or views (meaning that the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood could not be ruled out).
The foundations for dialogue, it added, needed to be: “No to violence, no to sectarianism and no to foreign intervention.” As for the ruling Ba’ath Party, the Arab League required it to hold an immediate and extraordinary congress at which it would announce the transformation of Syria into a democratic multi-party system based on the ballot box.
The Arab League, at the request of Assad, would be willing to facilitate the dialogue. Finally, the initiative called for a new government and a prime minister “accepted by the opposition that is engaged in dialogue”. This caretaker premier would supervise upcoming parliamentary elections before the end of 2011. Once that was achieved, whatever bloc received a majority vote would get to name the new prime minister, paving the way for a non-Ba’athist administration to come to power for the first time since 1963.
The elected chamber would declare itself a constitutional assembly, charged with laying out a new “democratic constitution”, one that ostensibly would drop Article 8 of the constitution, which designates the Ba’ath Party as “leader of state and society”. All of these reforms would be supervised by “an Arab formula” mandated by the Arab League.
Pro-government websites and individuals immediately criticized the initiative, claiming that it was a “clear violation” of the Arab League charter, because it “meddles in the affairs of Syria”.
The opposition welcomed it, and surprisingly so did the LCCs. Previously, having accepted nothing short of regime change, they were seemingly welcoming of a plan that would keep Assad in power, at least until 2014.
Officially, Syria put forth an initiative of its own during an Arab League meeting in Cairo, shortly after al-Arabi’s Damascus visit. Syria’s initiative called on all Arab states to lift emergency laws imposed by their respective governments since the 1960s, as well as the abolition of all state security courts.
Syria’s initiative also called for comprehensive national dialogue in all states in the region with the objective of reaching a constitutional framework that guarantees democratic political participation, the rule of law, non-discrimination and human rights.
The initiative included the establishment of constitutions that guaranteed freedoms, the establishment of parliaments, the formation of political parties and freedom of action for non-governmental organizations, throughout the Arab world.
The Syrian initiative, pretty much like the Arab League one, did not pass.