UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen met with Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Al-Muallem early this month, and according to Syrian sources “great progress was made, and agreement is almost at hand on the Constitutional Committee” tasked with drafting a new constitution for the country.
Pedersen also discussed the formation, mechanisms and procedures of the Constitutional Committee, describing his meetings in Damascus as “good”. He noted that “there was great progress in the talks, but there is a lot more to discuss.”
The government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad did not confirm if it agreed with everything Pedersen said and noted that the constitutional process “is a Syrian matter that belongs to the Syrian people alone. The Syrian people are the only ones who have the right to lead this process and decide their future without foreign interference and according to their own interests.”
The regime has often repeated such statements over the past year to indicate its refusal to form a genuine committee, since this could force it onto a political path that it does not want even if its ally Russia recommends it.
On his fourth visit to Damascus since he succeeded Staffan de Mistura as UN envoy, Pedersen met with Al-Muallem’s deputies and senior officials, as well as with representatives of civil society and the domestic opposition.
After their meeting, opposition members inside Syria said they had discussed the issue of who would fill the civil society’s one-third quota of seats on the Constitutional Committee.
They said there would be joint chairmanship of the Committee, and for the first time said that the regime had showed limited agreement on the issues.
However, they still accused the regime of trying to circumvent the political process.
The opposition members focused on the situation on the ground in northwest Syria and on the need to implement a ceasefire and release detainees to show the regime’s good faith and prove it was serious in moving forward on the political process.
This would be vital for any political process that the UN wants to revive in Syria, and the opposition went on to stress that the Constitutional Committee was the gateway to a political path based on international principles, most notably UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which it said must be implemented in its entirety.
These two preconditions are the crux of the problem for the regime because if it agrees to either it will mean the start of its demise and committing to a process that will not allow it to remain intact.
It will be forced to accept international resolutions that lead to a transitional period in Syria and a credible interim governing body with full executive powers.
These two conditions are the priority of the opposition because they are the only guarantees that the war machine in Syria will stop and the political process will proceed according to international resolutions that will ensure a transitional phase to transform Syria from totalitarian military rule to a civil democratic state.
A key obstacle is the regime’s insistence that the committee should have a two-thirds majority for the regime so that it can ensure that the outcome aligns with its agenda.
This ratio contradicts what de Mistura had earlier suggested. Another structural issue is that Russia wants to form the committee according to its Astana and Sochi frameworks, which undermine the Geneva process.
Pedersen’s trip to Syria came shortly after a visit to Moscow where he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and announced that the Constitutional Committee would be the gateway to resolving the Syrian crisis. The Russians said the committee was nearly complete, but they did not give any details.
The negotiation process between the opposition and regime according to the UN should have four components: a transitional governing body; the constitutional process; the electoral process; security and combating terrorism.
The constitutional process is part of this comprehensive plan and not a stand-alone preamble or something separate from the other three components. A political solution, according to the UN, also has parallel tracks, which is something Russia has been trying to avert.
Al-Muallem said in 2011 that “we will drown them in details, and they will have to learn to swim” in characterising the regime’s fundamental strategy.
The regime has thus far largely succeeded in bogging down the situation in a swamp of details and peripheral problems that distract from the core of the issue and have derailed the Syrian cause onto tracks that are irrelevant to the primary issue.
The process of choosing members for the Constitutional Committee remains a mystery, as are its orientations and voting procedures. It does not have a clear timeline, and it is unclear who will oversee its operations and ensure the implementation of its decisions.
If all these issues are not worked out, it could decimate the committee when and if it is formed.
Russia continues to support the Al-Assad regime and provide apparently limitless military and political assistance to Damascus, including using its veto power in the UN Security Council in favour of the regime and frustrating the demands of the Syrian people for a genuine Constitutional Committee.
However, the conflict will not end without parallel progress in implementing the international resolutions on Syria. But even this minimal goal will not be easily achieved by the Syrian people and international community, and it could be years before the Constitutional Committee sees the light.
If it is ever formed, it would need many more years before a new constitution could be born. It would thus be wise to begin thinking of viable alternatives that are supported by the international community and theoretically more rational solutions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Constitutional hurdles in Syria