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Russia, UN take another stab at forming Syria’s constitutional committee

Despite real progress on the formation of a constitutional committee for Syria, challenges remain ahead of a new round of Astana talks.
Officials attend a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov - RC1305474A80

Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), is set to host another Astana format session in early August. By this time, it should be clear whether a constitutional committee for Syria will finally start to function in the near future.

The decision to form the constitutional committee was adopted at the Sochi National Dialogue Congress in January 2018. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters July 10, “If the visit of UN special envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen to Damascus speeds up the finalization of the committee’s composition and procedure, one may agree on the date.” He added, “I think that it will not take long. In early August another Astana session is due to take place.”

Al-Monitor has learned that Russian diplomats hope to see all the disputes over the committee resolved by the Astana talks in August. In January 2018 in Sochi, it was decided that the committee was to be composed of 50 members each from the Syrian opposition, the government and civil society. This last component was supposed to be compiled under UN auspices with the help of a group led by Staffan de Mistura, at that time the UN special envoy for Syria. By late 2018, the lists had been finalized and approved by the opposition and Damascus through the mediation of the Astana guarantor states: Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The formation was supposed to have been announced by mid-December at a Geneva meeting between de Mistura, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, but the talks were not followed by a final statement. As it later turned out, the UN had been dissatisfied with six names on the civil society list, suspecting them of having too close ties with Damascus. At that time, de Mistura resigned and Pedersen took over. It took another six months to arrive at a compromise.

From the start, Damascus did not welcome the idea of discussing the constitution. At best, the government was ready to endorse minor amendments to the existing constitution. President Bashar al-Assad was fearful that the regime might lose control of the country’s political future. Moscow went to great lengths to convince the Syrians of the necessity to establish the constitutional committee and compile all the required lists. Yet following the UN refusal to accept the work done, Damascus once again dug its heels in.

Late June saw another visit of a Russian interagency delegation led by presidential special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin to the Syrian capital. Only after this event did the compromise start to take shape. According to Kommersant sources, the June meeting produced a 4+2 formula accepted by the Syrian authorities. The arrangement implies that Damascus would add four and the UN two names to the civil society list. However, the Syrian leadership laid down the condition that the committee’s decisions would be made by a 75% majority.

It was earlier assumed that decision-making and other organizational issues, including major organs and their location, should be decided by the first Geneva session. However, Damascus decided to hedge its bets beforehand. In the run-up to his trip to Syria, Pedersen flew to Moscow to exchange views on the details and scope of a possible compromise. Finally, he conducted crucial talks with the Syrian authorities on July 10.

“UN Envoy @GeirOPedersen had constructive discussions w/Syrian FM Moallem & they have made good progress. Getting closer to reaching an agreement to establish a Constitutional Committee in line w/SC resolution 2254. Looking forward to discussions w/ the SNC shortly,” the office of the UN special envoy for Syria tweeted following Pedersen’s talks in Damascus.

“The parties are close to a deal on the composition and mechanism of the constitutional committee,” SANA reported, confirming some progress had been made.

Diplomatic sources in Syria later told Al-Monitor that the UN special envoy was very pleased and even surprised by the productive attitude of the Syrian authorities. The 4+2 formula was clarified and slightly modified. It now states that Pedersen will suggest six names, of which Damascus must choose two. In turn, the Syrian authorities will come up with 11 names for the UN to pick four.

It was assumed that the final list would be agreed in the near future, ideally by the end of the week following Pedersen’s visit. However, as of this writing, no further information has been provided. The final six-name list must also obtain the approval of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), the umbrella opposition group. Under the preliminary arrangement, it was to consent to the UN-approved candidates. Still, last weekend’s talks between Pedersen and SNC head Naser al-Hariri were to be followed by the final decision.

Apart from the names, the opposition’s approval is also needed concerning Damascus' condition on the decision-making procedure within the constitutional committee — whether its decisions are to be adopted by consensus or a 75% majority — and other rules regulating its work, that the Syrian authorities have already approved of. Diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor the UN had been concerned over potential resistance on part of the opposition to some points. Judging by al-Hariri's tweets after his meeting with Pedersen, those fears were not unsubstantiated.

The opposition leader wrote that the conversation focused on the situation in Idlib, northern Syria and “the need for a comprehensive nationwide cease-fire to prepare for a genuine political transition” and finalizing the formation of the constitutional committee. He added it was impossible to talk about “the positive intentions of Russia or the regime” after all the “crimes committed in our country.” Al-Hariri stressed that the regime should cease the bombing and release all detainees to show genuine readiness to sit at the negotiating table. These words resemble conditions set out by the opposition.

The UN has nothing to say on the issue even though Pedersen discussed Idlib in Damascus and, according to Al-Monitor's sources, received the authorities’ assurances about their readiness to abide by the Russian-Turkish agreements on the region reached in Sochi last autumn. Given the hypercharged atmosphere in northern Syria in recent weeks, the remaining arrangements concerning the committee will not be smooth sailing for all the intermediaries regardless of the remarkable progress.

Later that week, Lavrentyev and Vershinin visited Ankara and Tehran in the run-up to the Astana meeting and then flew back to Damascus for the second time in three weeks. The discussion in all of the three capitals revolved around the issues concerning the completion of the formation of the constitutional committee and the situation on the ground, Idlib in particular.

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