On May 24, 2016, Elie Hanna, a journalist for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Syrian regime, published excerpts of the draft of a "Russian constitution for Syria," which included what he called "substantial changes to the current constitution." The daily later reported that the draft was the result of U.S.-Russia talks.
In recent months, there have been numerous reports of U.S.-Russia talks regarding a Syrian constitution, particularly after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in March 2016, after visiting Moscow, that the sides had agreed on a timetable for drafting a constitution and on a framework for a political transition by August 2016. This relatively short timeframe could indicate how much work has already been done on a constitution. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat later reported that during Kerry's visit, Russia had given him a draft constitution, whose details were not published, and that U.S. and Russian officials had discussed it in Switzerland during April 2016.
Debates regarding the Syrian constitution have been ongoing for several years, including with the sponsorship of Western elements such as the Carter Center and the International Peace Initiative for Syria (which comprises human rights activists and academics from around the world who are working to promote a peace process in Syria), and with the participation of various Syrian oppositionists and regime affiliates. The U.S.-Russia talks could be based on ideas raised in these forums.
Such U.S.-Russia talks on a Syrian constitution - if the reports in Al-Akhbar and Al-Hayat about them are accurate- are in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that a new Syrian constitution is to be drawn up by the "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" established in Syria as part of the transitional phase - that is, a constitution can only be drafted by the Syrians themselves after such governance is established. Additionally, it is unclear how this statement by Kerry, and the U.S. -Russian talks themselves, are in line with the efforts by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura during the Geneva talks between the Syrian regime and opposition aimed at arriving at a declaration of constitutional principles to form a temporary constitutional framework for the transitional period.
Furthermore, if the Russian draft published by Al-Akhbar is genuine, then it reflects a split between Russia and the Syrian regime and Iran over the future and identity of Syria - a split that reportedly also exists between these allies regarding the management of the battle on the ground. If this draft was formulated in coordination with the U.S., as Al-Akhbar claims, then it can also indicate a split between the U.S. and the Syrian opposition headed by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
This document will review the details of the Russian proposal as published in Al-Akhbar, and reactions to it:
Lebanese Daily Publishes Russian Draft For Syrian Constitution: Government Decentralization, Eroding Of State's Arab-Islamic Identity, Restriction Of Presidential Powers
On May 24, 2016, journalist Elie Hanna wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Syrian regime, that "Russia had finished drafting a new Syrian constitution," and hinted that there were disagreements between the allies regarding this constitution. He wrote that the debate on the constitution was taking place "far from the Syrian territory that is 'bound' by the ceasefire imposed by international [elements, and also far] from the stalled political talks in Geneva," and added that, in his opinion, there was "a hidden struggle and tug-of-war even between the allies over the Syrian constitution and its language." He stated further that "behind the storm of disagreements at the [Geneva] negotiation table regarding the transitional governing body and the timetable there lurk dozens of committees [representing] international organizations and governments that are [all] examining different drafts for a new Syrian constitution," but that the "the U.S. and Russia are the most active on this front..."
According to Hanna's report, the draft includes "substantial changes and new articles that are different from those of the constitution [from 2012] that is currently in force" and which would mean substantial improvement in the status of ethnic and religious minorities, while cutting back on regime centralization by granting legislative and executive authority to local administrations, which exist today in accordance with the 2012 constitution. These changes are in line with Russia's public support for Syrian minorities, and with a February 2016 statement by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov vis-à-vis Russia's hopes that the political process would lead to the establishment of "a federal republic" in Syria. Likewise, the draft reduced some of the president's powers, but left control of security apparatuses and the military in his hands.
"New Russian draft for Syrian constitution" written in blood via puppet Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (Arabi21.net, May 24, 2016)
Improving Status Of Ethnic, Religious Minorities vs Syria's Arab And Islamic Identity
According to the report, the Russian draft obscures Syria's Arab and Islamic identity and enhances recognition of the identities of its ethnic and religious minorities. It states that the word "Arab" is removed from the state's name - it is now "the Syrian Republic" - and that "the apparatuses of Kurdish cultural self-governance and its organizations will use the Arabic and Kurdish languages as equal [in status]." Furthermore, every local administration will be permitted to use the language spoken by the majority of the residents within its jurisdiction in addition to Arabic, if this is approved by local referendum.
As for the status of Islam, the draft omits Article III of the 2012 constitution, which states that the president must be Muslim and that Islamic tradition is the primary source of legislative authority.
Also according to the report, the obscuring of the state's Arab and Islamic characteristics continues with the purging of the oath of office for senior officials of all religious and ethnic symbolism. Al-Akhbar wrote that the oath proposed in the Russian draft makes no reference to the oath-taker's Muslim or Arab identity, and reads: "I hereby swear to honor the country's constitution and laws; to honor and protect human and civil rights and liberties; to defend the state's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity; and to always act according to the interests of the people." The current oath of office (emphases added) is: "I swear by Allah the Almighty to honor the country's constitution, laws, and its republican regime; to protect the people's interests and liberties; to preserve the homeland's sovereignty, independence, and freedom; to protect its territorial integrity; and to work for social justice and for the unity of the Arab ummah."
Restricting Government Centralization vs. Local Administrations, Which Gain Legislative Authority
In addition to increasing cultural autonomy for local administrations by enabling them to add their local tongue as an official language, the draft also grants them autonomous legislative powers. It states that there will be a "Regional Assembly" comprising members of local administrations, which will have legislative powers alongside the current Syrian parliament - the name of which will be changed to the People's Assembly. These two bodies, the Regional Assembly and the People's Assembly, will be the two houses of parliament, and will constitute the legislative branch "on behalf of the Syrian people." The Regional Assembly, it states, will be independent and its members will be entitled to immunity. Further, both Assemblies will have the power to elect members of the Supreme Constitutional Court - a power which is currently in the hands of the president. This Regional Assembly will also have powers vis-à-vis the president - it will retroactively ratify a presidential declaration of general military mobilization, and preapprove a presidential declaration of a national state of emergency. Additionally, in the absence of a president or prime minister capable of carrying out presidential duties, the Regional Assembly will have presidential powers.
The draft constitution stipulates that elections for the Regional Authority will be held one year after the ratification of the new constitution. There was no mention of whether Assembly members are to be elected directly by the people or chosen by members of the local administrations.
Reducing Presidential Authority
The Russian draft cited in Al-Akhbar reduces some of the powers currently held by the president, in several areas:
Candidacy: A presidential candidate must be over 40 and a Syrian citizen. Eliminated is the requirement that a candidate be Muslim. Other requirements omitted in the draft are the stipulations that both a candidate's parents be natural-born Syrian citizens and that a candidate cannot have a non-Syrian spouse.
Term Limits: As in the current constitution, the Russian draft sets the presidential term of office at seven years, and mandates a two-term limit. The president elect will be sworn in by both the Regional and People's Assemblies.
Role and powers: The president will continue to serve as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In case of a military attack or a threat to the country, the president can take measures to stop them, and must inform the Regional and People's Assemblies that he has done so. He may launch a general military mobilization and a national state of emergency with the approval of the Regional Assembly. The Al-Akhbar report does not note whether the president will have absolute authority over the armed forces as he does under the 2012 constitution.
The draft states that the president has the authority to "define the general trend of government action and to oversee the implementation of laws and the operation of state apparatuses." This departs somewhat from the current constitution, which grants the president the power "to determine the general policy of the state and to oversee its implementation."
Another new clause in the Russian draft states that the president will "mediate between the authorities and the state and society."
While it does not set out the president's legislative authority, the draft also does not explicitly state that he has none. According to the draft, the president must approve laws passed by the Regional and People's Assemblies. However, if he opposes any law, the Assemblies can vote on it again, and if it passes by a two-thirds majority, the president must then approve it.
The draft also shifts the power to appoint and remove state employees and military personnel from the president to the government, including members of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Expanding Governmental Authority
In addition to revoking the president's power to appoint and remove state employees and military personnel, the Russian draft constitution also gives the government the authority "to sign franchise agreements with foreign companies, and agreements that include extra-budgetary expenditure." The government, it says, is politically accountable for its actions vis-à-vis the president; however, in contrast to the 2012 constitution, it does not explicitly state that the president may prosecute its members. Furthermore, the government is accountable to the Regional and People's Assemblies, which, with a simple majority, can propose a vote of no confidence in the government.
The Al-Akhbar report also did not clarify who appoints the government or who selects it members.
Restricting The Power Of The Armed Forces
The 2012 constitution states that the military and armed forces are "a national institution charged with defending the homeland's territorial integrity and regional sovereignty, and serve the people's interest and defend its goals and national security." It states that the armed forces are not subordinate to the people, but to the president. The Russian draft appears to restrict the power of the armed forces, stating that they will be "under society's oversight" and will not involve themselves in politics or in the process of transfer of power. It "bans extra-governmental military operations or operations of a military nature outside the authority of the state." The new draft is vague on the issue of conscription, stating generally that "Syrian citizens will carry out military service is accordance with the law"; in contrast, the 2012 constitution states that "mandatory military service is a sacred duty mandated by law."
Demoting The Ba'ath Party
According to Al-Akhbar, the draft effectively revokes the Ba'ath Party's current dominance as the country's ruling party, stating that "no ideology can be seen as collective or obligatory." It also eliminated the allotment of half of the seats in parliament to the labor and farming sector, which is the Ba'ath's power base.
Reactions To The 'Al-Akhbar' Report
Russian News Agency Denies Report On Russian Draft
The day after Al-Akhbar published its report, the Arabic-language website of the official Russian news agency Sputnik, reporting from its Damascus bureau, cited a "knowledgeable source" who claimed that "Russia had presented no draft of a Syrian constitution" and that the media reports refer to a document drafted by the Carter Center following 15 rounds of talks with members of the Syrian opposition in coordination with the UN and the office of Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The source added that the Carter Center document, which is known as the "transitional constitutional document," was not Russian in origin, and that "the Russian government has not presented any draft constitution to Syria, because Moscow respects the sovereignty of the Syrian state. The new constitutional document [published in Al-Akhbar] was drafted by the opposition and the U.S., and concerns the transfer of most presidential power to the transitional government."
It should be mentioned that this news item appeared only on the Arabic-language Sputnik website, not on the Russian-language one. It also did not explicitly state whether the source it cited was Russian or Syrian. However, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA, the source was Russian.
The Carter Center website features a document dated May 8, 2016 and titled "Syria's Transition Constitutional Options." However, it is unclear whether this is the document referred to by the Sputnik source, because, alongside some articles that are similar in their content to the document published by Al-Akhbar, such as those limiting the president's powers, there are also substantial differences between the two documents. For instance, the Carter Center document retained the 2012 constitution article stating that the president must be a Muslim - unlike the Al-Akhbar document, in which it was omitted. Additionally, the Carter Center document defines Syria as "Arab" and preserves the language of the oath taken by state officials, and makes no mention at all of the Regional Assembly, which is granted extensive powers in the Al-Akhbar document.
Other Sources Corroborate Al-Akhbar Report On Russian Draft Constitution
Al-Akhbar dismissed the denials, reporting on May 27 that the draft constitution it had published was only a "small portion" of the Russian proposal for a future constitution, which has U.S. approval in principle. It insisted that the draft does indeed exist, that it was the result of Russia-U.S. talks and that it reflected the Russians' "excessive flexibility" vis-à-vis U.S. proposals. It stated further that the proposal had been presented to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, and had "sent major shock waves through Damascus," which had effectively rejected all the sections that eroded the president's powers and Syria's Arab identity. Stressing that the draft was non-binding, the paper stated: "Moscow knows that it cannot impose a constitution that will eventually be subject to referendum, and knows that the 'high threshold' of the proposal is expected to come down in accordance with amendments to it by its ally [the Syrian regime]... Damascus knows that a constitution will not be forced upon it..."
The paper stated that its motive in publishing the draft was not political but purely journalistic, but added that its purpose was "to expose improper intentions regarding Syria's future" and that "it is not possible to be neutral with regards to a plan to divide Syria..." 
Corroboration of the existence of a Russian draft constitution appeared in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat some two months before the Al-Akhar publication. On April 2, 2016, it reported that during a Moscow visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had received from his counterpart Sergei Lavrov a draft of a new Syrian constitution "based on a document drafted by legal experts close to the Syrian regime." The Americans, it added, were studying it. On June 2, 2016, Al-Hayat reported that the Russian draft was 24 pages long and had 85 clauses, that it had been given also to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, and that both had amended, in very similar ways, the sections regarding the president's legislative and executive powers, with the aim of retaining them.
Further corroboration came from Syrian oppositionist sources; however, they also stated that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had approved the draft. Thus, the same day Al-Akhbar published the draft, the oppositionist website all4syria.info wrote: "This proposal is genuine. Russia finished drafting the constitution some two weeks ago and presented it to Assad, who approved it. Russia informed its representatives in the Syrian opposition - Dr. Ilian Masaad, Randa Kassis, Qadri Jamil, and Ahmad Hisso ... regarding the text of the proposal, telling them that there was no turning back from it and that they must adopt it... and present it as is as their own proposal. [They were warned] that anyone opposing it would be dealt with harshly..."
Dr. Faisal Al-Qassim, senior Syrian journalist for the Qatari Al-Jazeera TV and an opponent of the Assad regime, wrote on his Facebook page: "[Assad] accepts the Russian proposal to manage Syria on a sectarian and ethnic basis, and to transform it into a non-Arab republic, after destroying it and expelling its people."
Syrian Regime Angrily Denies Reports: Only Syrians May Debate The Syrian Constitution
Regime representatives denied that any Russian draft had been presented to Syria, and criticized its reported contents. On May 26, 2016, two days after Al-Akhbar published the draft, Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi rejected the report and stated that Syria had no information about it. He stressed that "the Syrian people alone will be asked about any new constitution."
The following day, the Syrian Presidency's Facebook page posted this message: "Over the past two days, we have received numerous questions regarding reports in some media outlets regarding 'a draft of a new Syrian constitution presented to Damascus' and 'Syrian amendments' to that constitution. Additionally, there have been debates and analysis on this issue in the media and on social networks. In order to prevent any confusion, we wish to stress that no draft constitution has been presented to Syria and that all media reports on this matter are groundless. Any new future Syrian constitution will not be presented by foreign [elements], but will be purely Syrian. Syrians alone will debate it and agree on it, and it will then be brought to a referendum. Nothing else has value, or significance."
Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riad Haddad also rejected the draft published by Al-Akhbar, stating that the Syrian regime opposed Syria becoming a federation, as indicated by clauses regarding the status of the Regional Assembly and Kurdish autonomy. He said: "We once again stress that the solution to the Syria crisis should result from an agreement between the state leaders and the people. A political arrangement should be based on several points, the main ones being preserving the integrity of the people and the sovereignty of the state. This rules out the possibility of dividing the state or agreeing to a federal region as the Kurds demand... Any talks that exceed this framework are unacceptable to our leadership."
The official Syrian daily Al-Ba'ath also addressed this issue, stating that a constitution could only be drafted after terrorism was eliminated, and that the Arab identity of the state must not be eroded. It stated in an editorial: "...The problem is not the constitution... What constitution, what political life, and what social contract [can be discussed] while terrorism is rife throughout the country and the ummah...? We cannot speak about a constitution... a political track, a broad government, or a transitional period so long as UN Security Council Resolution 2253 [concerning the fight against ISIS] is being disregarded, or Article 8 of Security Council Resolution 2254 [calling on countries to stop supporting ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Syria] is being circumvented. We cannot achieve anything before eliminating terrorism..."
The newspaper also stressed Syria's Arab identity: "Neither the war, nor the previous, current, or next constitution will change the identity of the Syrian Arab Republic... Syria cannot have a sustainable political society that is disconnected from national identity and Arabism..."
Syrian Regime Opponents Reject Notion Of Russian Constitution
The Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) - the opposition's representative to the Geneva talks - rejected the Russian draft outright without addressing its content; it stated that any constitution would be drawn up by the Syrians alone, and only after the start of the transitional period. HNC Deputy Chairman Yahya Al-Kodmani called the draft a trial balloon, and stressed: "We must hold talks on a constitution [only] after establishing the transitional ruling body... The Syrian people, whether regime supporters or opponents, will not consent to the Russians imposing a constitution on us."
HNC advisor Marj Al-Baqai called on the authors and distributors of the draft to apologize to the Syrian people for circumventing them.
"Syrian Constitution" - a mirror image of the "Russian Constitution" (Orient-news.net, May 24, 2016)
Independent Syrian oppositionist Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani was harsher in his response, and warned that the Russian proposal pushes Syrians to adopt extremism and terrorism, which will eventually be turned against Russia as well: "...Russia drafted a constitution for the Syrian people, which it is trying to impose by way of [its] Sukhoi jets... The Russians believe that the end of this act of massacre [i.e., the Syria war] begins with a constitution, as though Syria's problem is this or that article in the constitution that is faithfully implemented by Bashar [Al-Assad] and his gang, and as though a constitution changed by Russia [will induce] Bashar to change his behavior and become kindhearted, thus eliminating the need to topple him... Instead of striking the mass murderer and handing him and his gang over to international tribunals, they offer us a constitutional solution after all these mass graves, as though the reason for them was a mistake we made in drafting our previous constitution..." Al-Labwani warned: "This attempt is a new aggression and a new weapon being drawn in the face of a people that has nothing left but extremism and terrorism as a means to defend its honor... You [Russians] are forcing our people to support, sponsor, and export terrorism... The only response to this flagrant arrogance that legitimizes crime and rewards its perpetrators is nothing but blind violence by suicide attackers that strikes fear in the hearts of anyone collaborating [with it] wherever they are. If the humiliation is the constitution that you impose on others, expect fear and terror to be the constitution that they impose on you..."
The draft published in Al-Akhbar was also criticized in pro-Syrian-opposition Arab media. Thus, several hours after the Al-Akhbar report was published, the Saudi Al-Arabiya website published a harsh response titled "Russian-Iranian Constitution for Syria Eliminates Its Arab Identity." It stated:
Al-Arabiya report headline
"It seems that Russia, which has conquered Syria in deed, not [just] words, has taken sole control of the country, after [Bashar] Al-Assad transferred it to his allies Moscow and Tehran. Iran applied pressure for the removal of the title 'Arab' from the name of the republic, for the erasure of [Syria's] Arab identity, and for melting it by means of constitutional changes - which can be said, at the very least, to be a 'constitutional war' on Syria...
"If there is truth to today's leak [of the draft constitution by Al-Akhbar], then Assad has sold what remains of Syria, after he destroyed, killed, ruined, and gifted it to the Russians who fought for him, and this is [also] a cry of 'onward' to the intervention by Iran, which seeks primarily to eradicate the Arab identity of Syria - and, as a matter of fact, not only of Syria..."
Additional Debates On Future Syrian Constitution In Various Forums
As noted, the report on the details of the Russian draft constitution did not emerge in a vacuum. Debates on Syria's future constitution have been ongoing, inside and outside the Syrian regime, at various political and academic venues, and with the participation of both Syrian and foreign elements. Evidence of this can be seen in Assad's response to Kerry's statement that the U.S. and Russia had agreed that a constitution should be drafted by August 2016; Assad told the Russian news agency Sputnik: "We can present a draft constitution within a few weeks. The experts are there. There are finalized proposals that can be combined..."
The issue of the constitution was also raised in a meeting between Assad and French National Assembly members in late March 2016. National Assembly Member Nicolas Dhuicq said after the meeting that Assad had expressed his objection to the article in the current constitution granting Muslims the exclusive right to become president and showed willingness to expand local administrations' powers and liberties, but vehemently opposed Syria's becoming a federation.
Furthermore, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat reported, on March 27, 2016, that the Syrian regime's delegation to the Geneva talks had "new amendments to the 2012 constitution" on three topics: removing the clause stating that the president must be a Muslim; setting a presidential term of seven years with a two-term limit starting with the next election; and the selection of the president by parliament as opposed to by direct elections.
Starting in 2013, the Carter Center has held meetings and debates with Syrian elements "from across the political and sectarian divides," [together with representatives from the U.N., E.U., and U.S. administration regarding possible constitutional and governmental models for the transitional period in Syria. On May 8, 2016, after a round of debates in Beirut that began in January 2016, the Carter Center published a draft of Syria's Transition Constitutional Options. To date, this is the most detailed public document outlining the constitutional framework for the transitional period in Syria.
This document states that the preferred option is to amend the current constitution, which has been in effect since 2012, and to append to it a declaration of constitutional principles. The oppositionists' proposal to enact the 1950 constitution, which was in force prior to the rise of the Ba'ath party in 1963, during the transitional period, and the proposal to draft a new constitution for this period, were both rejected by the other participants in the meetings.
This draft limits the president's executive and legislative powers: For example, he cannot appoint and fire the prime minister and cabinet members; he remains commander-in-chief of the armed forces but does not hold "absolute authority" over them as under the 2012 constitution; and he has the authority to issue dictates and orders, but they must be subject to the law. According to the draft, the transitional period will see the establishment of a legislative body; one third of this body's members will be chosen by the current parliament, one third by the HNC, and one third by an international organization. There will be separation of powers; a civil system will be established to oversee the security apparatuses and military.
The Carter Center draft also presented two options for the interim governing body that will run the country during the 18-month transitional period: either the government, which will likely comprise representatives from the regime and opposition and will have full powers, or a body combining the presidency and the government.
Another constitutional initiative came from the International Peace Initiative for Syria - a group of human rights activists and academics from around the world working to promote a peace process in Syria. In April 2016, the group met in Vienna with politicians, legal experts, and Syrian opposition activists and regime associates, in order to draft a constitutional principles document. However, the participants were only able to agree on a few general principles such as a democratic and egalitarian Syria, a separation of powers, and non-centralized governance while preserving Syria's territorial integrity.
Apparently, as part of the efforts to draft a constitution and obtain the Syrian opposition's seal of approval for it, Russia has sponsored what it called "an intra-Syrian opposition stream." In early March, Syrian officials from Damascus who call themselves oppositionist, even though some are reportedly regime supporters, arrived on a Russian aircraft at the Russian air base in Khmeimim, northern Syria, and met with Russian representatives. A statement issued after the meeting called for drafting a new constitution "that can achieve democracy and independence for a secular Syria, while preserving the rights of all citizens regardless of religion and ethnicity."
However, the ideas raised in all these debates have yet to be presented to the public, and have therefore not sparked the same debate as the Russian draft published by Al-Akhbar.
* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 17, 2016.
 Nytimes.com, March 24, 2016.
 Al-Hayat (London), April 2, 2016; April 16, 2016.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 24, 2016.
 Syria-news.com, February 29, 2016.
 It is unclear whether this is a reference to military action outside the country's geographic borders or military action without state approval.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 24, 2016.
 Sputniknews.com, May 25, 2016.
 SANA (Syria), May 25, 2016.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27, 2016, June 17, 2016.
 Al-Hayat (London), April 2, 2016, June 2, 2016.
 Syrian oppositionists acceptable to the regime and to Russia, who do not demand Assad's ouster.
 All4syria.info, May 24, 2016.
 Facebook.com/falkasim, May 24, 2016.
 Dp-news.com, May 26, 2016.
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 Aksalser.com, May 28, 2016.
 Al-Ba'ath (Syria), June 1, 2016.
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 Champress.net, March 27, 2016.
 Al-Hayat (London), March 27, 2016.
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 One of whom, Dr. Alian Mas'ad, secretary-general of the National Coalition Party for a Secular Syria, said that the Syrian government has shown its good intentions regarding humanitarian aid, and called on de Mistura to silence the Riyadh opposition. Dp-news.com, February 18, 2016.
 Arabic.rt.com, March 9, 2016.