The second round of Syria’s Constitutional Committee tasked with drafting a new constitution for the country ended after one week without a meeting between the 45 delegates representing the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the opposition and various NGOs.
There was no confirmation about scheduling a third round, raising fears that the UN-sponsored process will collapse even though many still believe that the committee could spell the start of the long-anticipated political solution to the crisis in Syria.
The negotiators did not meet last week, and the government and opposition delegations could not agree on an agenda for talks. UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen was unsuccessful in his efforts at mediation.
The talks aim to accelerate what the UN believes will still be a long road to a political rapprochement in Syria followed by new elections. But observers doubt that Al-Assad will be willing to compromise, especially after regime forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have succeeded in recovering large swaths of territory during strikes against opposition forces and militants.
The regime delegation left the UN headquarters in Geneva where the talks have been taking place followed by other delegates without the committee reaching a consensus, and the next round of talks slated for 16 December was not confirmed. Mediation efforts will continue between the parties in an attempt to reach consensus.
The discussions thus far have been drowned in minutia, with the opposition making suggestions that have been rejected out of hand by the regime and the regime presenting a set of principles it wants the opposition to agree to before meetings begin. Both sides have been at odds with the NGO delegates.
The opposition delegates submitted five suggestions regarding a new constitution, while the regime focused on two. The regime delegates then proposed what it called “national fundamentals” that the opposition and NGOs must endorse before discussion on a new constitution can continue.
These included “condemning the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, upholding the unity of Syrian territory and sovereignty, rejecting the participation of separatists, and rejecting terrorism.” The opposition said that any discussion of such “national fundamentals” would have to be within a constitutional context and not a political one.
Ahmed Al-Kozbari, regime co-chairman of the committee, said a 45-strong smaller working group “cannot meet during the second round of talks in Geneva because the delegation of the Turkish regime [by which he meant the opposition] has refused to discuss an agenda and the national fundamentals.”
“The national delegation [meaning the regime] made a suggestion for a meeting, but the response came through the media not via official channels, which is a violation of the code of conduct of the meetings and the latest in a series of dozens of such violations.”
Hadi Al-Bahra, co-chairman for the opposition, said he was encouraged by the second round even though the participants did not meet because it had taught the delegates the “lesson to adhere to procedural rules and set an agenda before the next round.”
Al-Bahra said the delegates faced a critical task that was the key to the political process and to implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254 under which the Constitutional Committee was formed. He stated that all present were determined to end the suffering of the Syrian people, to lift the sanctions, to end the barrel bomb attacks and strikes, to halt the bloodshed and reach a political solution that leads to implementing international resolutions.
The regime delegation was adamant in its position, but before leaving Geneva it said it was still willing to make an effort in future rounds to decide on an agenda for the meetings to come. It said that its “national fundamentals” expressed “what the Syrian people want, and they must be discussed before moving onto other topics.”
The opposition said that even if the efforts fail, it was determined to continue working and stressed the importance of another round of talks based on a clear agenda that expressly states the committee’s mandate and its task to draft a new constitution for Syria.
Moscow criticised the UN envoy as a result of the failure of the committee meeting, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that “the risk of foreign intervention and forcing solutions on the Syrian people from the outside is present [at the Geneva meetings]. Our colleagues in the UN, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and his special envoy to Syria, must look into stopping these attempts.”
“Such interference must be avoided by [Pedersen’s] office in particular,” he said, adding that there “must be a balance in his office to ensure fair geographical representation, as stipulated by the UN Charter.”
After the Geneva talks failed, some members of the committee and Pedersen received an invitation from Kazakhstan, at a request from Moscow, to participate in the Astana Talks in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan.
Observers believe that Russia wants to continue the Geneva discussions in Astana, and the Russian news agency TASS published a report on the outcome of round two of the committee meetings that noted that the opposition and regime delegations had disagreed on the agenda.
It said the regime had insisted on “national fundamentals” that included a declaration to combat terrorism and condemned the occupation by foreign troops of Syrian territory. However, the report neglected to mention that these “fundamentals” are political issues and have nothing to do with the committee’s mandate.
Moscow believes a solution to the deadlock could be found during the talks in Nur-Sultan on 10-11 December, part of the Astana Process on Syria sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Any glimmer of hope that constitutional reform is on the way was extinguished after the second round of talks in Geneva failed, and it now appears that the procrastination by Damascus has succeeded. The regime’s official rhetoric describes its representatives to the committee as “the delegation supported by the government,” which means any deal with the opposition has no necessary effects and the meetings are merely “brainstorming” in character.
The regime views its delegation as “the patriotic delegation,” which means the other delegations are not. It has also described the members of the opposition Higher Negotiations Commission as “the delegation representing the Turkish regime.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said he hoped the next round of the Astana Talks would be attended by the government and opposition delegations to the Constitutional Committee. “The government and opposition delegations are participating, and we hope they will continue to participate in the Astana Process,” he said.
Pedersen resisted attempts by Russia, Turkey and Iran, together with Damascus, to divert the reform track from UN-sponsorship at Geneva to Astana.
Lavrov, his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif were in Geneva for the launch of the Constitutional Committee in late October. Pedersen then said that constitutional reform in Syria must be “a process led and owned by Syrians.”
Subsequent obstructions of the work of the committee in Geneva could be part of an attempt to transfer the political process to the three guarantors and avoid a complete overhaul of the Syrian Constitution.
But the US has not yet made its opinions known, and a word from Washington could bring the delegations back to the Geneva process and the pre-established track without any modifications.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.