The 13th round of talks in the Astana process, launched by Russia, Iran and Turkey to clear the way for the Geneva peace negotiations on the Syrian crisis, was muddled through last week amid lingering differences on a long-anticipated constitutional committee. Although the escalating clashes in rebel-held Idlib topped the agenda of the talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, now called Nur-Sultan, there was strong expectation that the constitutional committee would be finally announced. Ankara spoke of progress toward the formation of the body, as some sticking points between the Syrian government and Turkey, which acts as a spokesman for the opposition, remained unresolved, deferring the matter to the Sept. 11 summit of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish leaders. Disagreements over the composition of the committee were largely resolved, but the rules on how it will function continue to be the subject of discord.
Ahead of the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had stressed joint efforts toward “declaring the formation of the committee.” Ahmad Toma, who represents the armed opposition, had spoken of “positive developments,” saying that an announcement on the committee’s formation “will come soon.” Speaking July 31 in Istanbul, he blamed the delay on Damascus, saying, “The regime kept putting forward unacceptable conditions. It demanded the chairmanship and a two-thirds majority in the committee, but that was not accepted.”
In the final communique, Turkey, Russia and Iran expressed satisfaction that work on establishing the committee and its procedural rules was nearing conclusion and pledged support to make sure it convenes in the shortest possible time.
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Ahmed Jakkal, a senior member of Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, an opposition group, offered the following details about what happened at the latest round in Nur-Sultan: “Under Russia’s pressure, Turkey and the regime agreed on a mid-way compromise on six disputed names [proposed for the committee]. Opposition groups close to Turkey accepted this outcome. Yet the establishment of the committee was not announced because of disagreements on its functioning and working principles.”
According to Jakkal, the disagreements focus on several main points. First, the opposition insists on a time limit for the drafting of the new constitution to avert delay tactics by the Syrian government. A second disagreement concerns the specific time frame, including the frequency of meetings. Third, the parties are at loggerheads on what the decision-making majority should be. The Syrian government wants the decisions to be made on the basis of “compromise.” Earlier, Damascus was said to be pressing for a two-third majority in the committee and insisting on a 75% majority to make decisions.
Creation of the constitutional committee had been agreed upon at a National Dialogue Congress, held in January 2018 in the Russian city of Sochi. The body was to be made up of 150 members, with 50 representatives each for the government, the opposition and civil society. By December, then-UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura had the lists ready, but a list-minute discord emerged over six names on the civil society list, who drew objections for being too close to the government and thus failing to meet the independence criteria. In a bid to find middle ground, de Mistura’s successor, Geir Pedersen, had a series of contacts with the three guarantor countries and paid several visits to Damascus. Russia’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin also shuttled between Ankara, Tehran and Damascus to try to resolve the matter.
In his July 10 visit to Damascus, which followed a visit by the Russian pair, Pedersen managed to hammer out a compromise with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. According to the 4+2 formula they agreed on to fill the six seats, Pedersen was to choose four names from a list of 11 names Damascus would propose, and Damascus was to pick two out of six candidates Pedersen would put forward. The six nominees would have to be accepted also by the opposition’s joint negotiation team, the Syrian Negotiation Commission.
From the outset, Damascus has been averse to endorsing the process of drafting a new constitution on the grounds of two main arguments. First, it has maintained it will not allow foreign powers embroiled in the war, especially Turkey, to interfere in Syria’s domestic affairs. Second, it has made some limited changes in basic laws since April 2011, including in the constitution’s Article 8 that used to describe the Baath Party as “the leader of state and society” and in the laws on political parties, elections and the media. It has deemed those amendments sufficient, hoping to leave the issue behind, perhaps with a few additional changes. Eventually, Russian pressure has reportedly forced Damascus to soften its stance.
Turkey, for its part, seeks to influence the future of Syria via the opposition negotiating body it has formed with members of factions under its patronage as part of operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch as well as the rebel groups concentrated in Idlib. Turkey’s influence comes at the expense of the Kurds who have built a de facto self-rule in northern Syria. Because of Ankara’s veto, none of the components of the autonomous administration, including its main actors, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, has been able to take part in the Astana and Geneva talks. Russia had initially pressed for the Kurds’ inclusion into the process, but its insistence seems to have waned amid its rapprochement with Turkey. In 2016, the Russians organized talks between representatives of Damascus and the Kurds at the Khmeimim air force base, proposing a negotiation paper that included the removal of the word “Arab” from the official name of the country, the Syrian Arab Republic. Damascus, however, did not acquiesce to negotiating the proposed changes. Instead, its opening to the Kurds sought to make do with some limited amendments to the law on local administrations, introduced in 2011. A couple of attempts at dialogue following the Khmeimim meeting ended in failure.
The prospective members of the constitutional committee have yet to be publicly announced. There is no doubt, however, that the Turkish veto on the Kurds is as tough as ever. The PYD’s foreign relations chief, Salih Muslim, told Al-Monitor that no one representing the autonomous administration of north and east Syria had been put on the committee. “There is no one representing us in the committee. There has been no negotiation with the Russians on this issue either,” he said. Asked about how they would treat the eventual inauguration of the committee and the draft it could produce, Muslim said, “Efforts in which we don’t take part will not be binding for us.”
A constitution-drafting process excluding the self-rule administration, which holds nearly a third of Syria’s territory, could hardly claim inclusiveness and produce a durable solution. What is more, it remains doubtful whether a committee that has taken so long to create could work with determination, consistency and efficiency.
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