An impending proposal to amend Syria’s constitution would end the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on political power while retaining its central role, a high-ranking official in Damascus said.
According to the Baath Party official, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity, embattled President Bashar Assad will soon propose a change in the language of Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution from granting his party “leadership of state and society” to “leadership in state and society,” in an attempt to meet domestic and international demands for change.
Critics and opposition supporters immediately said the proposal would fall far short of the demands of a burgeoning pro-democracy protest movement and regional and global powers increasingly alarmed by the regime’s violent repression of peaceful protesters. The official said late Saturday that the proposal, which include provisions to allow multiparty elections, could be publicized within days.
On Sunday, the state news agency said Assad would make a speech Monday about “current circumstances” in Syria.
“With this amendment, the Baath Party becomes a party operating on Syrian territory and have priority in the state as a result of tradition,” said the high-ranking official, who did not want his name to be used because he was not authorized to speak to foreign media. “A law of parties will be introduced within 30 days, allowing political parties to obtain licenses and giving the right to any group to establish a political party on Syrian territory and to compete with the Baath Party and the Progressive Front,” a collection of Baath front groups.
A peaceful nationwide democratic protest movement inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia is challenging the authority of Assad, his family and their Baath Party allies, who have ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades. Security forces for the regime, dominated by minority Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, have killed an estimated 1,300 people in an attempt to suppress protests and sparked an exodus of refugees into neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, which is temporarily housing 10,500 Syrians.
On Sunday, pro-Assad forces in the country’s northwest continued to besiege several towns and round up young men, according to pro-democracy activists.
An anonymous Turkish official this weekend told the daily newspaper Today’s Zaman, which is close to Ankara’s ruling Justice and Development Party, that Assad had “days” to launch significant changes or face a series of unspecified and escalating actions by Turkey, which is emerging as a powerful regional player.
But protester demands for reform have grown into calls for the overthrow of the regime in near-daily demonstrations throughout the country, especially among the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. Activists and analysts said changing a preposition in the constitution would not suffice.
“He’s trying to get people to swallow a few small changes as reform, as opposed to what they are: tweaks to a rotten system,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who said he had heard rumors of the impending change.
“This is not a repeal of Article 8, which has been a long-standing demand of protesters,” he said. “The constitution still says the Baath Party has a leading role. What if elections decide that it no longer does?”
A pro-democracy activist in the Syrian capital called the proposed changes “inconsequential,” predicting that they would do nothing to quell the anger and aspirations of the protest movement. Fresh demonstrations erupted Sunday in Homs, the third-largest city, and in Dara, the southern city where the rebellion was born in March.
“When did the regime ever abide by the constitution?” said the activist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his security. “The problem with the regime is the family-business mentality and the absence of autonomous institutions when all is controlled by one family.
“Besides, there are thousands killed, detained, raped and tortured whose families don’t care about reforms anymore. They are out for revenge.”
A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.