Russia Says Syria Rejects New Constitution Diluting Assad Powers

(Bloomberg) -- Syria won’t accept a Russian plan for a new constitution that would dilute the powers of President Bashar al-Assad, in a setback for Kremlin efforts to negotiate an end to the seven-year civil war.

“I don’t see any possibilities for making the draft proposed by Russia as a basis for this constitutional process,” Vitaly Naumkin, a senior Russian government adviser, told a round-table hosted by the Valdai discussion group in Moscow on Monday. “We’re not trying to impose this on the Syrians -- this is unacceptable to them, both for the opposition and Damascus.”

After a surprise visit by Assad to Russia Thursday, President Vladimir Putin announced that Damascus had agreed to send a delegation to United Nations-chaired constitutional talks in Geneva. Their participation could breathe new life into the Russian-led peace effort. But the Syrian leader seemed to limit room for negotiation, saying only that his country is willing to discuss amendments to the current constitution.

While the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, has succeeded in wresting back control of much of the war-torn country, the prospects of any peace settlement remain distant. The U.S. and its allies, which continue to call for the departure of Assad, insist they won’t contribute to any post-war reconstruction without a genuine political transition.

With U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in control of a quarter of Syria and Turkey holding territory inside the Syrian border, Putin said he and Assad agreed on the need for foreign troops to leave the country. Naumkin said that was a reference to Turkish and U.S. forces, since Russian and Iranian troops have been invited by the Syrian government.

Russia’s plan for a draft constitution calls for decentralizing some power from the central government, setting a maximum of two consecutive seven-year presidential terms and allowing the parliament to remove the head of state from office.

Assad’s refusal to accept any weakening of his power shows he “does not want a political solution,” said Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the main Syrian opposition group. “This makes the Assad regime’s position in direct conflict with the Russian position.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.