UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the first meeting of the internationally sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee this week, which is composed of 150 members, equally divided between the opposition, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Syrian civil society.
The committee is tasked with reviewing the current Syrian constitution, amending or replacing it as the start of a political solution to the crisis in Syria. However, this step by the UN has not been popular among the Syrian opposition, the majority of whom have said they reject the way the committee was formed and the “absurdity” of its role.
They have declared their rejection of the committee on various social-media platforms, asserting that the regime agreed to it in order to draft a constitution tailored to its interests and contrary to the priorities of the Syrian people. Syria’s social media has been full of criticisms of opposition figures who have become members of the committee, some even accusing them of betraying the revolution.
Although Ibrahim Al-Jabawi, a member of the Constitutional Committee, said the regime had “agreed to all the conditions and demands of the Syrian Negotiations Commission,” another committee member, Yehia Al-Oreidi, said that “no matter its composition or its power, the committee does not represent the ambitions of the Syrian people.”
He claimed the regime had only agreed to it after Russian pressure. Oreidi said the committee would function “not because the regime wants it, but because there is a party responsible for keeping the regime in power, and they will take care of it.”
Moaz Al-Khateeb, a former chairman of the opposition coalition in Syria, commented that “the Constitutional Committee is the outcome of what the occupation forces in Syria have decided, and the international community is silent. It is the prelude to whitewashing the regime and holding presidential elections under foreign occupation.”
“Constitutions under the supervision of an occupation are the essence of dictatorship and simply corruption in a new form. What is more important for the Syrians right now, even before a new constitution, is the release of the detainees from regime prisons.”
Syrian opposition figure Monzer Khaddam did not believe the committee would achieve its mandate. “It is a vehicle to waste time. Amending or replacing the current constitution must be the outcome of a national conference that represents all of Syrian society or a Constituent Assembly,” he said.
Fares Al-Helou, an opposition member, said that “the promised new constitution is the constitution of the criminal international political system. The Syrians cannot place the issues of the detainees and the war crimes and crimes against humanity on the table to be negotiated into oblivion.”
Mohamed Sabra, an opposition figure and chair of the Syrian Republic Party, said that “the committee will bury the struggle and sacrifices of the Syrian Revolution. The problem isn’t the names, or quotas, or leadership, but the procedures that will be used. There is also the question of how the committee’s decisions will be translated into a legal structure binding for all the parties.”
“Committee decisions approved by 75 per cent, or 113 votes, of the membership will be put to a referendum. But though this looks democratic, the problem lies in the mechanisms used. The Constitutional Committee itself is a major violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which is the foundation of the political process in Syria.”
“The committee cannot call for a referendum on the constitution, and it must refer to the existing one. The decisions of the committee are merely suggestions that need to be approved by the people,” he added.
“We insist on a provisional Constitutional Declaration instead of this committee because we know that it will waste the struggles of the Syrian Revolution.”
The opposition and the regime are at polar opposites, with the opposition wanting to write a new constitution and the regime insisting on amending the current one. The decision to form a committee to draft a new constitution was taken during the Syrian National Dialogue in the Russian city of Sochi at the end of January 2018.
Russia wants the Sochi Dialogue to be the framework for a solution in Syria, but the US and Europe insist this should come as part of the UN-sponsored Geneva meetings.
Thabet Ebara, chair of the Union of Syrians in the Diaspora, a civil-society group, said the formation of the committee would erase the interim ruling body proposed in various UN Resolutions.
“This is a coup against the Geneva I Declaration and UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It leaps over one of the key issues adopted by the UN to resolve the crisis, namely an interim governing body with full executive powers to oversee drafting a new constitution and prepare for UN-supervised elections in compliance with international standards of transparency and accountability.”
“Whether the committee decides to draft a new constitution for Syria or amend the current one, the regime will be in charge of the referendum and it will be held under its supervision and the control of its security agencies. No UN oversight will stop it from interfering in the referendum, and it will not reflect the true desires of the Syrian people,” Thabet added.
The 50 opposition figures on the committee are mostly unqualified, observers say, and are affiliated with political groups loyal to regional blocs in Syria. The regime has also had the upper hand in the formation of the committee, and in addition to its quota it has influenced the members chosen by the UN.
However, the opposition does not have a unified vision of Syria’s future due to internal disputes and weaknesses, and this will likely frustrate efforts to draft an alternative constitution.
Even so, the Constitutional Committee has many flaws that will make it unlikely to conclude in a constitution laying the foundation for Syria’s future. Its composition is controlled from abroad, and it is an attempt to find a political solution while the war in Syria continues. Its large number of members means that there are ample opportunities for delay and obstruction, and the decision-making process used by the committee requires a 75 per cent majority, with the regime having an in-built majority.
Many in the opposition believe there can be no meaning in the reform process without a comprehensive political settlement that achieves minimal transitional justice, creates real change, and obtains the agreement of international forces.
Mounir Shahood, an opposition figure, said the committee was part of an “attempt to isolate it from other steps, making it a preemptive step to undermine the Geneva Process. It is another attempt to impose a Russian solution, which has already stumbled on the issues of reconstruction and the return of refugees.”
Nader Jababli, a human-rights activist, said that “the regime will drown the committee in details as a way of obstructing its work. This will go on until the regime and its allies regain control of the country and reach the settlements necessary to rehabilitate the regime.”
Statements by opposition figures on the committee indicated that they could compromise under the pretext of political realism. “Politics is the art of the possible,” they said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.