LONDON - Seven months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacted indignantly when a Lebanese newspaper reported that Russian diplomats had finished drafting a new constitution for his country — one that included a name change for the Syrian Arab Republic with the removal of the word Arab.
On its face, the proposed constitution clawed back some powers from the Syrian president, handing them to the prime minister, a council of ministers and decentralized "regional commissions" — although the system of government under the Russian plan remained largely presidential.
"No draft constitution has been shown to the Syrian Arab Republic. Everything which has been said in the media about this subject is totally untrue," Assad's statement read.
This week, the Assad government toned down its objections — at least in public — when Russian negotiators at the Astana talks handed to rebel counterparts a version of the draft constitution. In private, within the talks process, the government has raised reservations. The difference speaks volumes, say Middle East analysts, arguing that it reflects how Russia is now calling the shots when it comes to finding a solution to the long-running conflict in Syria.
Russia fills gap
This week, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May told U.S. Republicans in a speech that neither her country nor America should invade foreign countries "to make the world in their own image." Russia appears determined to fill the gap and model post-conflict Syria according to its vision.
Last week, Russia signed a long-term military agreement with Syria allowing it to expand its Tartus naval base. A similar agreement allows the expansion of the Russian-built Khmeimim air base in Latakia.
Syrian rebels have noted the contrast between what they see as a retreating West and a newly assertive Moscow, dubbing Russia "imperialist." Rebel negotiators have rejected Russia's draft constitution, telling Moscow that only Syrians are entitled to write their country's constitution. However, some rebel leaders concede privately that their weakness on the battlefield thanks to Russian hard power and a developing rapprochement between Moscow and Turkey, their biggest overseas backer, is placing them in an increasingly weak position.
Speaking Friday in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed the importance of the Russian draft constitution for a future Syria.
"The draft constitution attempts to bring together and find shared points in those approaches that were outlined to us both by representatives of the government and representatives of the opposition, including all those present here, over the past several years," Lavrov said.
He emphasized Russia does not want to impose it on the country. The rebels, however, aren't so sure. They say that, at the very least, Russia is trying to pre-define much of what will be discussed when it comes to U.N.-brokered peace talks expected to resume next month.
Syrian opposition figure Yahya al-Aridi says Russia's Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, presented the rebel delegation with the draft constitution at the start of the Astana talks this week.
Left on the table
At first, the rebel negotiators left the document on the table, a gesture of disregard and in line with their insistence that they only agreed to attend the Russian-brokered negotiations to discuss the fragile cease-fire and boosting humanitarian aid into their war-torn country.
Their biggest priority all week has been to get Iranian-controlled militias to abide by the cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey.
As far as the rebels are concerned, the draft constitution merely shakes up existing government power structures, a reformulation as they see it of the existing Baath party's state structures. The draft goes further: curbing presidential powers, adjusting the parliamentary structure, and introducing changes to the judiciary and the security agencies.
And to the frustration of Syrian Kurds, who welcome the proposed dropping of Arab in the name of the country, the Russian constitution falls short of political federalism, although it envisages Kurds being given greater administrative freedoms in northeast Syria. The ruling Kurdish PYD in northern Syria attended a Moscow meeting Friday. The PYD was not invited to the Astana talks because of Turkish objections — Ankara views the group as a terrorist organization with ties to Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Russia's state-owned news agency, Sputnik News, reported in June 2016 that Russia suggested the name change for the country "in order to appeal to ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Turkmen." Pre-war Syria had a 74 percent majority Arab population; 9 percent were Kurds, and there were about 100,000 Turkmen.
Before he took office on January 20, U.S. President Donald Trump indicated he will cede efforts to end the Syrian civil war to the Russians, and suggested he might end American financial and logistical support for rebel forces battling Assad.
The Syrian president has clung to power thanks to the intervention of allies Russia and Iran. And they appear now to be securing rewards. Earlier this month, the Syrian government announced it would give Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming, and 1,000 hectares for oil and gas terminals. Iran also has secured electricity projects.