Syria’s Least Passive Parliament in More Than Half a Century

For decades now, many observers have written off Syria’s Parliament, or the People’s Assembly as it is known, as no more than a rubber stamp passive legislature with hardly any input or influence in the de facto lawmaking process. Although the previous Constitution of 1973 and the current Constitution of 2012 vested legislative authority in the People’s Assembly, they shifted more political authority to the executive branch and away from Parliament. Its structure and position in the state apparatus stand in stark contrast to its predecessor the Chamber of Deputies established in accordance with the Constitution of 1950, which lay at the center of power in the former parliamentary republic. While the Chamber of Deputies held more political sway during the unstable political regimes of the post-independence era, its successor the People’s Assembly lost much of Parliament’s historic clout to the presidential system of government that followed.

When the Baath Party came to power on March 8, 1963, it dismantled the Chamber of Deputies. In its place, it fused the executive and legislative branches of government into the National Revolutionary Command Council, which ruled the country thereafter. It was not until President Hafez Al-Assad’s administration reconstituted the national legislature after an eight-year period in February 1971 and rebranded it with a new title – the People’s Assembly – that a semblance of parliamentary life returned to Syrian politics. Unlike the Chamber of Deputies which stood at the center of the parliamentary republic, the People’s Assembly operated in the context of a presidential system whereby the President of the Republic ultimately held together the functions of government and spearheaded the decision-making process.

No analysis is complete without appreciating Parliament’s current position in the state apparatus. According to the Constitution of 2012, the authorities of the People’s Assembly mainly include proposing legislation, passing bills, approving the national budget, debating policies set by the Council of Ministers, holding the government and individual ministers accountable, and nominating candidates in the presidential election. To a certain degree, Parliament shares the lawmaking authority with the President of the Republic in accordance with Article 113 of the Constitution. The People’s Assembly holds at least three regular sessions a year, which should not be less than six months in total, and may also hold extraordinary sessions under certain conditions. Even though constitutionally speaking members of parliament (MPs) are required to represent all the Syrian people, they are elected at the provincial level with every province allocated a fixed number of seats. Of the 250 MPs elected every four years pursuant to the Electoral Law, half are comprised of laborers and farmers. The last election was held in April 2016 and the most recent poll took place on July 19, 2020 after it had to be postponed twice since April due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The People’s Assembly has undergone three major developments over the course of the last 50 years. The first development took place in February 1971 when the initial 173 MPs of the newly reassembled legislature were appointed by President Hafez Al-Assad. Their successors were however subsequently elected every four years following the adoption of the Constitution of 1973. Furthermore, the number of MPs was increased to 195. The second noteworthy development took place in 1990 when the number of MPs was set at its current limit of 250 in order to accommodate independent candidates, including individuals from the business community, who had hitherto been underrepresented in the People’s Assembly.

It was however in 2011 that the overlooked Parliament suddenly garnered more interest for Syria watchers, thereby setting in motion the foreseeable third major development. In that year, the parliamentary elections were postponed for the first time in the history of the People’s Assembly due to the outbreak of unrest in Syria. The elections finally went ahead the following year in May 2012. The conflict was still in its infancy then and there was not much time for a wartime parliamentary class to have come of age. It was not until the next parliamentary elections in April 2016 that new faces armed with a sense of activism, frustration, tragedy and social media awareness emerged onto the scene and helped to revamp the identity of the once passive institution.

Prior to 2016, the People’s Assembly was justifiably characterized as an apathetic body indifferent to its traditional constitutional responsibilities. Rather than seize the initiative and propose laws as they are mandated to do, MPs only appeared content to debate and pass bills submitted to them by the Council of Ministers. However, it would be remiss not to mention and appreciate the overbearing role of the Baath Party’s Regional Command in scrutinizing and delaying legislation, which has been repeatedly criticized by some observers as a check on what would otherwise be a more activist Parliament.

The composition of the MPs elected in 2016 reigned in a new legislative era. The cause of this new dynamic was in no subtle terms due to the war that Syria found itself embroiled in since 2011. It is reasonable to suggest that the conflict has tested people’s frustrations and patience to the limit, including of those individuals who would take up their seats in Parliament. In addition, the advent of social media, which coincided with the start of the unrest, thrust upon the Syrian population multiple avenues where they could vent and express themselves in ways that seemed alien just a few years earlier. Gone were the days when MPs occupied themselves with the technical aspects of lawmaking away from interactions with their constituents. Instead, more space cropped up for passions to flare over such issues as the secular nature of the state and deteriorating living standards coupled with outbursts against government ministers and conspiracies by MPs against their own Speaker.

Despite the foreseeable majority of the Baath Party-led bloc, the Parliament elected in 2016 saw an influx of new personalities among the 250 MPs, including businesspersons, the well-known film director Najdat Anzour who was elected Deputy Speaker of the People’s Assembly, other drama and media figures, and the sister of a fallen soldier. Many of them ran as independents as opposed to being included on party-sponsored lists. A meaningful minority of MPs not to be derided as mere opportunists clearly showed fervor upon taking their seats and it is fair to distinguish them and their attitudes from their colleagues and from their peers in previous Parliaments. They set a new tone and unlike their predecessors, tested the bandwidth of their constitutional powers in a new environment set against the backdrop of conflict and social media.

MPs set a number of records from 2016 until 2020. They elected the first woman Speaker in almost a century and deposed her a year later, both moves unheard of in Parliament in modern times. Vocal dissent among MPs became a common feature on a number of occasions, most notably during deliberations on the Awqaf Law, which proved to be a watershed moment, and on other key pieces of legislation, including the Chambers of Commerce Law, and those related to the National Administrative Reform Program. Their embellished interventions against ministers especially in response to social developments and a deteriorating economic situation became regular headliners. One would be forgiven for formulating the impression that such interventions by MPs on the floor amounted to no more than theatrical complaints registered on the official public record as opposed to actual constructive decision-making, but some instances where they seized the initiative and acted of their own accord should be afforded due credit.

The initial act of the People’s Assembly was to elect Deir Ez-Zor MP Hadiyeh Abbas as the first woman Speaker since 1919 when the post-Ottoman Syrian National Congress was in control. Abbas won the position uncontested following her nomination by the Baath Party-led bloc. Abbas’ brief tenure was memorable for another reason as well, which foreshadowed the rise of a relatively more activist Parliament. In an exceptional move unheard of since before the Baath Party’s assumption of power, 164 of the 250 MPs withdrew their confidence in the Speaker following her handling of deliberations pertaining to Parliament’s new proposed Rules of Procedure, which govern legislative proceedings. Consequently, she was discharged from office a mere one year into her term.

The Deputy Speaker and film director Najdat Anzour stepped in as Acting Speaker temporarily until a vote was held to elect a new Speaker. As an independent MP, Anzour became the first non-Baath Party member to hold the post although in an interim capacity. The Baath Party’s Regional Command subsequently nominated Hammoudeh Sabbagh for the Speakership. 193 MPs voted for Sabbagh, making him the first member of the Christian faith since Fares Khoury to hold the position. It was a number of firsts as far as the Speakership was concerned during the first year of the Parliament.

It was the deliberations surrounding Parliament’s new proposed Rules of Procedure which led to Abbas’ downfall as Speaker. Whereas the old Rules of Procedure dated back to 1974, they were considered outdated and in need of reform. Proceedings on the Rules of Procedure riled up debate and discord among MPs, especially over how they affected the structure of some parliamentary committees. The new Rules of Procedure eventually granted the Speaker more authority over parliamentary committee meetings and an augmented role in coordinating between parliamentary committees, ministries and other public bodies as well. The entire episode concerning the Rules of Procedure presaged the rise of an interventionist Parliament and set a new trend for the coming years.

Parliamentary dissent was not only confined to the Speakership and the Rules of Procedure. One of the contentious subjects of debate in the People’s Assembly was the proposed hike in the reconstruction tax. Law 46/2017 raises the reconstruction tax on consumers from five percent to 10%. The idea of doubling the reconstruction tax caused much quarreling in the People’s Assembly as a conspicuous portion of MPs opposed to the measure vehemently challenged it on the grounds that it would further constrain segments of the population with limited incomes. One MP demanded that so-called war profiteers should foot the bill instead. Nevertheless, the motion was passed and the dissenting MPs were overruled.

The People’s Assembly devoted much time to the topic of automobile imports. They were halted with the onset of unrest in 2011 due to the increased demand for foreign exchange they generated, which in turn caused the Syrian Pound to depreciate in value. The immediate effect was a substantial increase in the prices of secondhand cars that were already available in the Syrian market. Moreover, the government imposed higher tariffs on the importation of car parts. Following that move, debates were sparked among MPs and citizens since it is consumers who ultimately have to bear the expense of such tariffs down the supply chain. Such a state of affairs led some MPs to call for an end to the ban on automobile imports though without any favorable outcome. Despite a lack of progress on the reconstruction tax and automobile imports, MPs were about to have a certain degree of success on an issue that touched at the core of national sensitivities.

Towards the end of September 2018, a considerable controversy started to stir in Syrian society as a new piece of legislation, comprised of almost 40 pages, found itself making the rounds on social media. It was after all an MP who leaked the text of this new Law on his Facebook page in order to provoke a public outcry over its contents. Since the People’s Assembly was not in session at the time, President Bashar Al-Assad invoked his authority under Article 113(1) of the Constitution to issue Legislative Decree 16/2018, which revamped the powers and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (known in Arabic as ‘Awqaf’). It is not entirely clear which individuals drafted the bill in the first place but observers presume it was mainly the work of civil servants employed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments with the tacit backing of the political leadership.

The Awqaf Law as it came to be known initially caused a political storm among segments of the general population and MPs in the People’s Assembly. As they saw it, the Law expanded the powers and authorities of the wealthy Ministry of Religious Endowments at the expense of other ministries and public institutions, including that of the Grand Mufti of Syria. Groups and individuals opposed to the Law feared that the power of religious authorities and organizations would grow and threaten the secular nature and culture of the Syrian state. Protests among MPs and citizens in the media and on social media platforms claimed that the new Law would inadvertently empower religious interest groups and political organizations, who they feared were lurking beneath the political surface, at the expense of the secular institutions of the state.

In an unprecedented move not witnessed in more than half a century, the People’s Assembly used its constitutional authority to reject Legislative Decree 16/2018. Consequently, MPs voted to impose a range of amendments that would curb any new powers enjoyed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, especially the leverage it was anticipated to have over the other public institutions. Such activity had not been witnessed in Parliament since the early 1960s. As a result of its intervention, it became less easy for detractors of the People’s Assembly to characterize it as a rubber stamp legislature. Following the vote, President Bashar Al-Assad accepted the amendments and ratified the new Awqaf Law provided for in Law 31/2018.

The drama of the entire episode culminated in a move by the People’s Assembly to reassert itself for the first time in decades and amend the Awqaf Law as best it could to satisfy the public appetite. When analysts look back at the events that took place in Syria in the autumn of 2018, they may potentially point to them as a watershed moment where the power of popular discontent and social media managed to influence the lawmaking process in a constructive manner.

Another occasion where MPs seized the initiative involved the protracted proceedings surrounding the Chambers of Commerce Bill. The presence of business personalities among the MPs no doubt fueled heated debate on the subject that may have otherwise proceeded rather swiftly in the 1980s when the commercial classes were relatively absent from the People’s Assembly. The deliberations presented a rare insight into an active form of lawmaking where MPs with the requisite experience built over the years in their respective industries were articulating actual concerns on behalf of their community while simultaneously proposing practical solutions to alleviate them.

On this occasion, the MPs who hailed from the business classes urged their peers to cease conditioning membership in the chambers of commerce on the recruitment of employees to be registered with the General Establishment for Social Security. The rationale was that some merchants do not require employees but rather rely on family members to work alongside them. There were concerns that membership numbers would start to dwindle and the chambers of commerce would consequently lose lobbying influence in the years to come as a result of this recently instituted practice. The Bill, though amended by MPs on their own initiative, was eventually approved after much debate and became Law 8/2020 following its ratification by President Bashar Al-Assad. Along with the Awqaf Law, the Chambers of Commerce Law set yet another benchmark for increased intervention in the lawmaking process by MPs.

The enactment of the Real Estate Regeneration Law 10/2018 by the People’s Assembly created considerable wrangling both at home and abroad. It provides that one or more areas located in a local district and subjected to pre-existing zoning regulations may be regenerated pursuant to a decree for the purposes of real estate development projects, with the primary example being Marota City in Damascus. An area identified in a decree for regeneration undergoes a process whereby the land is initially rezoned but for the purposes of giving pre-existing landowners shares in the said area that will comprise the new development. Having obtained shares in the development, the landowners can no longer claim their original specific piece of land. The amount of shares they receive should be in proportion to their former landholding in the area before it was rezoned for development purposes. The Law also makes provision for alternative housing arrangements for former settlers of the said areas, though not officially the legal owners, that were subjected to regeneration.

The People’s Assembly attempted to leave its mark on the National Administrative Reform Program (NARP), which was launched by President Bashar Al-Assad in June 2017 and is overseen by the Ministry of Administrative Development. The mission of NARP is to implement an overhaul of the public administration and the public sector while reconfiguring the relationship between citizens and the state. In furtherance of NARP, President Bashar Al-Assad announced his keenness to put an end to the phenomenon of discretionary authority and the pre-existing right to grant exemptions that countless Syrian laws afford to public officials, which have fostered discrimination and the unfair treatment of some citizens at the expense of others over the years.

The issue of exemptions granted by public officials pursuant to such discretionary authority arose during deliberations in Parliament on a bill governing the functions and operations of the Artists Syndicate. The debate in this case came down to the simple legal term ‘may’, which implies an option on the part of public officials to act as opposed to ‘shall’, which mandates an obligation on them to act in the same manner towards all citizens. To permit them the option to act would continue to result in situations whereby such officials could discriminate between persons by treating some differently from others. A number of MPs held that the use of the term ‘may’ ran counter to NARP’s declared intention of revoking exemptions in legislation, including in the bill pertaining to the Artists Syndicate.

NARP fell under the spotlight in Parliament again during consideration of the long-awaited Customs Bill. Although MPs had already begun voting on clusters of provisions within the Bill, it was suddenly withdrawn from the People’s Assembly by President Bashar Al-Assad and remitted back to the Council of Ministers for further scrutiny. One of the reasons for this move was because some MPs had criticized the broad nature of discretion the Bill allowed to the competent authorities, which risked contradicting the recent policy adopted to invalidate exemptions. Moreover, MPs alluded to the wide set of powers enjoyed by the Director of the Customs Directorate and speculated whether a new board of commissioners independent of the Ministry of Finance should exercise such competences free from any discretionary authority. On this basis, one cannot confidently discount the input from MPs as a cause of the withdrawal of the Customs Bill for further review.

Although there was a degree of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches with respect to the Awqaf Law and the NARP agenda in general, Parliament’s constitutional powers were also kept in check. For instance, the People’s Assembly passed Law 32/2019 governing the functions and operations of the Council of State Administrative Court after repealing its predecessor dating back to 1959 during the era of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the United Arab Republic. The Council of State Administrative Court is the judicial body concerned with resolving disputes where one of the parties to a lawsuit is a governmental or public sector entity. The Law had to be subjected to approval for a second time by the People’s Assembly following its unprecedented referral to the Supreme Constitutional Court by President Bashar Al-Assad following the first vote in Parliament in light of concerns that some of its provisions may have been unconstitutional, though the situation was rectified accordingly.

The Parliament elected in 2016 came into office at the same time as the ‘National Partnership’ economic model was formally adopted by the government. It replaced the social market economic system advanced at the Baath Party Congress back in the summer of 2005 that sought to facilitate local and foreign private sector investments in Syria. The ‘National Partnership’ design on the other hand is underpinned by the concept of public-private partnerships (PPP), or joint venture agreements entered into by the state and the private sector to promote financial investment and expertise input by the latter in the operation of publicly-owned assets. It was further set in stone following the passage of the standalone PPP Law 5/2016, which built on previous legislation that incorporated provisions for PPP arrangements. As mandated by Article 75(6) of the Constitution, the People’s Assembly is obliged to ratify PPP agreements whenever the private sector investor is a foreign party.

As such, MPs endorsed a number of contracts concluded between the state and Russian and Iranian companies, particularly in the energy and transport sectors. One such Russian company Stroytransgaz has been an active player in Syria’s domestic gas market since before the conflict erupted. The People’s Assembly ratified contracts pertaining to Stroytransgaz’s investments in state-owned phosphate ores and fertilizer plants. A third agreement between Stroytransgaz and the Ministry of Transport to invest in Tartous Port was confirmed as well by MPs. Furthermore, the People’s Assembly passed bills ratifying three contracts for oil exploration and production with the Russian companies Mercury LLC and Velada LLC. The People’s Assembly also affirmed an oil and gas exploration and production contract that falls within the framework of Syrian-Iranian bilateral treaties. On a related note, such PPP agreements voted upon by MPs also sanctioned the incorporation of joint stock companies involving the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and a prominent local private sector investor whose aims are to build two new oil refineries.

A number of other bills were referred to Parliament for its input that are worth mentioning. Parliament passed Law 19/2019 thereby disbanding the Syrian Exporters Federation, which was formed a decade earlier, on the pretext that it was no longer fit for purpose. MPs also approved Law 37/2019, which dissolved the 58-year old General Federation of Housing Cooperatives and its branches throughout Syria’s provinces. The actual housing cooperatives however continue to exist under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works and Housing. Previously, MPs referred this bill to their Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee to ensure its provisions complied with the Constitution and do not amount to illegal expropriation. Furthermore, the People’s Assembly approved laws to establish insurance, maritime and cybercrime courts. Another law reinvigorated the Ministry of Higher Education for the first time in more than half a century, including by rebranding it as the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. On the international front, the People’s Assembly ratified Syria’s historic accession to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which became Law 31/2017.

Parliament also became substantially involved in matters concerning family law, especially the rights of women and children, which markedly surfaced during the war. A controversial bill was submitted to the People’s Assembly urging amendments to provisions of the Criminal Code to make it an offence punishable by imprisonment for couples who wed through customary marriages, which are not legally recognized in Syria. Its introduction followed rising cases of women facing abuse at the hands of their de facto husbands during the conflict due to marital legal technicalities. Instances of customary marriages throughout Syria were on the upswing since the war erupted for a variety of reasons, one of which is an absence of governmental control in parts of the country. Although the intention was to help vulnerable segments of society, the bill drew considerable criticism among MPs for its draconian nature. The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in Parliament deemed the punishment of imprisonment drastic and moved instead to replace it with a fine. The bill, eventually enacted as Law 24/2018, was yet another example of parliamentary eagerness to assert its authority.

The People’s Assembly also pushed through a bill that grants Syrian citizenship to children whose fathers are unidentifiable. According to the Nationality Law, the Syrian nationality is conferred on any individual whose father is a Syrian national. The bill irked some MPs who feared that the Syrian nationality would be bestowed upon individuals born in former rebel strongholds and whose fathers could potentially have been foreign fighters and terrorists. Nevertheless, such dissension was overcome on the basis that such children are not at fault and should not therefore be rendered stateless.

Strengthening legal safeguards for women and children continued towards the end of Parliament’s term. MPs approved amendments to the Personal Status Law through Law 4/2019, which improves the legal position of women. It grants them priority status when dealing with affairs concerning their family and children. The resulting reform also fixed the minimum marital ages of both males and females at 18 years. Another change to the Law allows a prospective wife to stipulate her right to work in her marital contract. One other momentous legislative achievement occurred when President Bashar Al-Assad referred a bill abolishing honor killings to the People’s Assembly on International Women’s Day. MPs subsequently approved the bill, which repeals Article 548 of the Criminal Code and therefore revokes legal recognition of honor killings. It was ratified as Law 2/2020.

Away from its lawmaking authority, Parliament is also expected to hold the government and its ministers to account. MPs grew more accustomed to this practice through a forceful line of questioning whenever ministers appeared before Parliament. One such occasion was sparked in 2017 after the Ministry of Education issued a new national curriculum for schools, which provoked protests and forced the People’s Assembly to call in the Minister of Education at the time for a grilling. The Minister’s fate was sealed the following year when he was replaced.

MPs were no friendlier to the Minister of Administrative Development, the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Communications and Technology. The Minister of Administrative Development faced criticism from MPs as they took her to task on the new powers her Ministry is exercising as part of NARP given its oversight authorities over other ministries. MPs also subjected the Minister of Finance to similar treatment on the state of the taxation system for failing to curb tax evasion at a time when the state’s coffers are coming under mounting strain. Discontent with the Minister of Finance over the challenging economic situation in 2020 led several outspoken MPs to call for a different minister to lead the government’s economic team. The People’s Assembly also questioned the Minister of Communications and Technology on corruption rumors surrounding the two telecommunications giants in the country Syriatel and MTN Syria, which proved to be a contentious issue garnering intense scrutiny on social media platforms.

Parliament’s constitutional right to withhold confidence in a government minister gained traction for the first time. Speculation emerged at one point whether the People’s Assembly may in an unprecedented move withhold confidence in the Minister of Transport over two matters involving an airline purchase contract, and royalty payments due to the national carrier Syrian Airlines from the privately owned carrier Cham Wings pertaining to air routes. While it never came to that, the thought of exercising such a constitutional right would have been a first for Parliament, especially since hitherto the President of the Republic has solely acted in the appointment and dismissal of government ministers.

Towards the closing days of Parliament’s tenure, the economic situation in Syria became incredibly dire. The value of the Syrian Pound was plummeting not least because of the conflict but also due to the international sanctions imposed on the country, the financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, which had a direct effect on Syria’s ability to import goods, and growing concerns over a COVID-19 pandemic. The government was severely criticized for its handling of the economic crisis. A Syrian MP called on then-Prime Minister Imad Khamis’ government to get a grip on the state of affairs in the country or face a vote of no confidence in the People’s Assembly as mandated by the Constitution. While such a scenario did not materialize, Prime Minister Imad Khamis was replaced days later by President Bashar Al-Assad.

The People’s Assembly also locked horns with the media industry, which drew in the Minister of Justice on one occasion. A legal dispute came to light after a radio presenter made damaging allegations against two MPs. The accusations prompted the Minister of Justice to request Parliament to lift the immunity of the two MPs concerned to face charges. The People’s Assembly refused to do so and rather sought to support a counterclaim against the radio presenter. In the end, the dispute was settled out of court. While the chapter corresponds to Parliament’s emerging confrontational demeanor despite being on the defensive in this instant, the public spat also inadvertently highlighted limitations that journalists continue to face under the Media Law passed in 2011 as a response to nationwide unrest.

Although the candid interventions by the outgoing MPs on the parliamentary floor are unique for modern Syria, such achievements for any legislative authority leave much to be desired by international standards. While MPs were more outspoken in this Parliament compared to previous ones, their statements could at times be reduced to grievances or protests registered on the official public record as opposed to valuable input that yields results. On other occasions, such as when the Awqaf Law, the Chambers of Commerce Bill, NARP, and the rights of women and children were debated, MPs forced through results by way of a process that has been alien to Parliament since the 1960s. The war in Syria allowed MPs to test the bandwidth of their constitutional authority while social media platforms helped to redraw the lines of parliamentary debate as a result of broader interactions with the public. The intention here is not to defend or contend that the People’s Assembly in its prevailing form is an adequate participant in Syria’s institutions of state, but rather to acknowledge and convey that for the first time in more than half a century, the winds of change can be felt in this legislative chamber. The question now is whether future Parliaments will build further on such modest progress by steering their course in a similar direction away from the technical aspects of lawmaking towards shaping the national conversation.