Beware of autocrats bearing gifts.

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Putin Has a Constitution to Sell Syria

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russia, a country not known for strict constitutionalism, has offered Syria's warring sides a draft constitution that will probably get rejected. But the document sheds light on Russia's goals in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.

QuickTake Syria’s Civil War

Russia presented the draft constitution to the Syrians last week, at the peace talks it co-sponsored with Turkey in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The immediate reaction from the opponents of President Bashar Al-Assad was not encouraging: They pointed out to the Russians that, after U.S. administrator Paul Bremer's less-than-stellar tenure in Iraq, Syrians wouldn't put much stock in foreign attempts to lay down the law for them. But Moscow says it doesn't want the belligerents to accept its proposals wholesale: All it's doing, according to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is offering a basis for discussion. 

"We are convinced by the experience of the last five years that unless specific proposals are put on the table, we may never start specific work," Lavrov said. 

That sounds reasonable, but it's also a well-tested Russian tactic in freezing -- rather than resolving -- conflicts in war-torn countries.

In May, 2015, the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine presented their proposals on Ukrainian legislation that, in their view, could bring about the country's reunification. They demanded self-government, the right to maintain an armed "people's militia," permission to maintain close ties with Russia, and a constitutional amendment that would keep Ukraine neutral, precluding its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The amendments did not seem to be the work of eastern Ukraine's "people's republics," which are ostensibly run by local thugs; they clearly came from Moscow. The Kremlin's plan was for Kiev to reject the proposals so the outside world would conclude that it, not Moscow, was the problem.

That was indeed what happened, allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim to Western leaders and anyone else who would listen that Kiev wouldn't compromise to end the war. No one in the West publicly agreed with that, but U.S. and European officials have pressured Ukrainians in private meetings to show more flexibility.

As for the stalled conflict, it continued to undermine Ukraine's stability at a negligible cost to Russia. To Putin, the straightest path to a more controllable, obedient Ukraine was one of attrition.

The Syrian rebels probably didn't have the time to follow the Ukraine crisis, and to them, any proposals coming from Moscow are tainted and suspect. An out-of-hand rejection, however, puts them in a Ukraine-style situation. Despite Moscow's claims that it wants final resolution, it may be satisfied with a trademark frozen conflict, in which Russia more or less runs the part of the country that remains under Assad's rule and Turkey does the best it can with the rebel-held part, taking on the burden of fighting the Islamic State on the ground with occasional Russian support when it's in Moscow's interest. That would give Putin a much-needed bargaining chip with President Donald Trump, who hopes Russia will help the U.S. end threats from IS and other terrorists.

Though such an overarching goal would have little to do with the content of the Russian-drafted constitution, the document itself is also noteworthy because it paints the ideal Syria as seen from Moscow.

The state news agency RIA Novosti has published a summary of text, which offers 85 articles. Apart from nice-sounding but meaningless statements like a ban on the military's participation in political life, it stipulates a seven-year term for the Syrian president with a two-term limit. That would mean a chance for Assad to remain in power for another 14 years. That power would be partially shared with the parliament, which the president wouldn't be able to disband and which would be able to impeach him, appoint some key officials and judges, as well as decide on war and peace. But Putin knows well how to tame a constitutionally empowered parliament. The Russian one has been eating out of the Kremlin's hand for more than a decade.

The only obvious concession to the rebels in the draft constitution would be proportional representation for ethnic and religious groups in the cabinet -- presumably a softer version of the Lebanese model, under which the country's diverse groups are entitled to specific government positions. That won't go a long way toward adequate government participation for the country's Sunni majority.

If Syrians accepted the Russian proposals, however, they would get a better deal than Russians themselves on some points. The Russian president, elected for six years, can stay in office for two consecutive terms, then run again after a pause, as Putin did after letting Dmitri Medvedev stand in for him in 2008 through 2012. The text proposed to Syrians sets a strict two-term limit, banning such shenanigans.

The Russian draft also sets international law, such as treaties and conventions, above Syrian law. Russia has lately departed from this principle. Its constitutional court ruled in 2015 that, contrary to its international obligations, Russia doesn't always have to follow the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Putin's Russia doesn't put much stock in its own constitution, especially those parts of it that deal with civil liberties and the rule of law. It doesn't expect Syria or any other country to be a stickler for rules. Constitutions and laws are for optics and delaying tactics. That Putin is playing this game again, as he did in Ukraine, doesn't augur well for a speedy resolution in Syria.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net