Astana trio, UN launch Syrian Constitutional Committee

The launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee provides hopes for a fresh start, but there's also enough room for skepticism.

al-monitor A general view during the meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee at UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Oct. 31, 2019.  Photo by Martial Trezzini/Pool via REUTERS.

Nov 1, 2019

The Syrian Constitutional Committee began its work precisely 19 months after the idea to establish the body was made in Sochi in late January 2018. Back then, the initiative seemed quixotic to most.

On Oct. 30, in Geneva, UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen formally launched the 150-member Syrian Constitutional Committee comprised of 50 delegates from the government, the opposition and civil society. To recap, it was the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi in January last year that produced the idea. Back then, the structure of the body was discussed — the idea originally put forward by Russia and backed by Turkey and Iran. It took the three states almost 12 months to work out the composition. For a long time, official Damascus refused to discuss the country's future political structure at any venues outside Syria. The opposition, in its own turn, did not want to engage in a dialogue amid ongoing fighting. The Astana trio would then have to force the parties into dialogue.

Finally, when the list of delegates was nevertheless agreed on last December, the UN turned it down as it had issues accepting a number of nominees from the civil society slot. It took another 10 months to have each party satisfied or, at least, put up an impression of having been satisfied.

Since the Sochi congress, the situation on the ground has changed dramatically. Three of the four de-escalation zones have ceased to exist, and Damascus-controlled territory has expanded significantly. More importantly, the Astana format, and especially the Russian-Turkish relationship, has demonstrated resilience both in word and deed. Moscow has forged closer bonds with both Riyadh and Doha, which ultimately had a profound impact on the Syrian armed opposition. The opposition itself has eventually become markedly more flexible, which, among other things, was demonstrated in their statements at the Geneva meeting that were toned differently. Remarkably, the final list of the Syrian Constitutional Committee saw neither prominent opposition leader include many big names in Damascus' and civil society's delegations. While the committee’s list was being negotiated, every name that could potentially spark somebody's negative reaction was crossed out.

The inauguration ceremony for the committee went smooth — both conflicting parties refrained from openly attacking each other, and the official statements coming from both camps were markedly polite. Somewhat unexpected was the eagerness of the Syrian government to not only consider amendments to the 2012 constitution but to discuss a new constitution as well. On previous occasions, Damascus would reject a new Syrian constitution out of hand.

This too came as a product of Russian efforts since Moscow has long been urging both sides to engage in dialogue despite the controversy over the issue. At the end of the day, Russia's arguments seem to have prevailed.

“If there are going to be amendments to the text, it doesn’t make much difference if the document is referred to as a new or an amended constitution,” a Russian diplomat told Al-Monitor speaking not for attribution.

“The constitution of 2012 is a modern document, but this shouldn’t discourage us Syrians from meeting for the purpose of considering possible amendments to the current constitution or to consider a new constitution that would improve our reality,” Ahmad Kuzbari, head of the Syrian government delegation, said.

Hadi al-Bahra, co-chair of the opposition, praised the step as “very positive.” Other representatives of the opposition remarked that Moscow was definitely behind the Syrian government’s visible readiness to compromise and voiced doubt over the extent of Damascus’ real flexibility.

“Everything positive in Kuzbari's speech is the result of Russia’s pressure. However, the process is already underway. I assure you that we will not let it stop,” said Safwan Akkash, the High Negotiations Committee secretary-general and a member of the opposition delegation.

The fact that a bumpy road lies ahead of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is obvious for all parties involved, including the negotiators, the UN and international observers. It’s also a guessing game on how long it might take for members of the committee now to agree on the text of the constitution. The opposition hopes to meet the six-month deadline. Facilitating the process should also be in Damascus’ interests since the new presidential elections are due in 2021. If President Bashar al-Assad wants to strengthen the legitimacy of his prolonged stay in power, he should stand for elections with a new constitution at his disposal. But few believe in the six-month timetable.

As of now, the list of concerns includes, among others, efforts to fully exclude external pressure on dialogue. In his address, Kuzbari emphasized “the government’s rejection of any direct or indirect interference in Syrian affairs,” which resonates with the opposition. However, the Syrian political forces’ overdependence on their backers will make it impossible for them to avoid any foreign interference.

The Astana guarantors also made it clear that they would put their best foot forward and counter “excessive” external influence. Shortly before the first meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey who arrived in Geneva put out a joint statement: “[…] the work of the Constitutional Committee should be governed by a sense of compromise and constructive engagement without foreign interference and externally imposed timelines in order to achieve the general agreement of its members[. …]”

The Geneva ministerial meeting lasted no more than two hours. Following the talks, all three foreign ministers were in a good mood while speaking to the press: They got the result they pursued, and the UN is due to take care of the rest.

 “Of course, the Constitutional Committee cannot settle all the problems. The humanitarian problems of Syria must be dealt with simultaneously without any politicization, discrimination and preconditions, and with support for the efforts to create conditions for the return of refugees and internally displaced people back home,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted.

Lavrov's Turkish and Iranian counterparts echoed the sentiment that the launch of the committee is just the first step toward the Syrian peace process.

 “Although I am optimistic, we are not naive. We are aware of potential pitfalls and, as the Astana guarantors, we will continue supporting the process,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu argued.

 “This is just the beginning of a very long and difficult political process in Syria,” Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif concluded.

Despite being in agreement on the principles of the committee’s work, each of the ministers highlighted what was key to his own national agenda.

 “The statement reaffirms our strong commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Lavrov stressed. Zarif agreed, adding, “Iran insists that Syria should be controlled by its armed forces and government, which will bear responsibility for the country’s and border's security.” Both the Russian and Iranian statements were subtle messages to be heard by their Turkish counterpart — Cavusoglu — who apparently heard it right and sent his own message: “The Turkish forces will stay in Syria until Damascus is able to protect its territory against terrorists.”

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