UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has accepted Moscow’s position and called for a meeting in Geneva on 18 and 19 June attended by officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss the formation of a constitutional committee for Syria.
The idea emerged from the Sochi Conference held on 30 January, but the new committee’s mission is still unclear. The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad wants it to draw on the 2012 Constitution, while the opposition wants to see it draft a new one guaranteeing rights and paving the way for a democratic state.
The opposition was surprised by de Mistura’s position and his call for a meeting without Syrian representation even though it will discuss the constitution. It says that the Al-Assad regime has allowed foreign countries and others to decide the fate of Syria.
When Moscow announced in Sochi that it wanted to form a committee to discuss a new Syrian constitution, the opposition agreed almost as quickly as the regime, putting forward some 50 names before the committee is due to meet in July.
More than 150 names have been put forward by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, with Russia and Iran naming a further 50 and the UN envoy suggesting 20 other independents.
Sources close to de Mistura said the committee would be composed of 75 members, with his nominees numbering around 20, or around one quarter of its members. It will be given three months to present a new constitution for approval by the international community and to be voted on by Syrians in a referendum.
The role of the opposition will be crucial in creating the committee sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey and to be approved by the Higher Negotiations Committee that represents the Syrian opposition groups.
However, it now seems the opposition’s role will be simply to sign on the dotted line and to give pro-regime countries more power and exempt the regime from seven years of destruction and war crimes.
Moscow and de Mistura have promoted the constitutional committee and let the opposition know that preparations are underway for a “new phase” of comprehensive change in Syria. However, everything about the new committee is ambiguous and the devil will be in the details.
The proposal has been overseen by Russia and Iran with UN sponsorship, giving it international legitimacy. However, given that both these countries have given the regime full-fledged support and fought against the opposition, it seems unlikely that the committee will work in the interests of the Syrian people.
De Mistura’s agreeing to Russia’s demands and adopting the idea of a constitutional committee is also an abandonment of decisions made at the Geneva Conference on Syria that state that a political solution in the country must begin by forming a transitional ruling body with full executive powers to draft a new constitution and present it to the Syrian people in a referendum.
Russia said the constitutional committee was “a translation” of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that refers to a new constitution as part of the negotiation process until the political transition is reached.
However, this is a ruse to justify the Russian decision to promote a political solution that will be the polar opposite to that promoted by the UN, as outlined by the Geneva Conference and underpinning Resolution 2254.
UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura
Claims by Moscow and de Mistura that the committee will achieve a “breakthrough” in the crisis are unfounded, because the committee is designed to circumvent the fundamental demand by the Syrian people for freedom and democracy.
It is also an admission that the transitional phase will be led by Al-Assad alone and that the opposition will be simply co-opted into existing governing mechanisms. It seems the new constitution will be drawn up in a time of war under Russian and Iranian auspices, countries that the Syrians often refer to as occupying powers.
Syrian human rights activists believe it would be a mistake to draft a new constitution now because the country is still at war. What are needed are constitutional guidelines or principles drawn up by independents free of political pressures, they say.
The opposition wants to see an entirely new constitution, but the regime believes the 2012 Constitution will suffice. At most, it is willing to revise some articles of the latter document, making it a stumbling block that could paralyse the new committee.
“The decision to form a constitutional committee was imposed by the Russians to circumvent the Geneva and UN Resolutions,” Loay Sufi, a member of the opposition, said.
“They want the constitution drafted by the committee to be the foundation for a political solution that keeps Al-Assad in power and makes the political transition into a process that legitimises the regime in power.”
The Russians “drafted a new constitution for Syria in mid-2017 and distributed it to the participants at the Astana Conference without discussion. Today, they want to make this the basis for the work of the constitutional committee, while the regime insists on redirecting discussion to the current constitution,” he said.
The regime refuses to discuss overhauling the constitution or issuing a constitutional declaration for the transitional period.
The current constitution imposed in 2012 grants the president extraordinary powers, making the country not only a one-party state but also a one-man show. The president has the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and other ministers, draw up state policies and oversee their implementation, can declare war and make peace, announce and end a state of emergency and approve the heads of diplomatic missions abroad.
He is also the head of the Armed Forces, can dissolve parliament and take over legislative powers, put forward constitutional amendments, and exercise executive, legislative and judicial powers. He is not accountable to the people.
Changing the constitution has been a key demand of the Syrian Revolution since 2011. Decree 85 of February 2012 announced a referendum on a new constitution to replace the 1973 Constitution, and it was then hoped that this would be responsive to popular demands.
However, the 2012 Constitution was worse than the previously existing one, and the opposition boycotted the referendum while human rights groups and Western countries described it as a “false” and “sham” referendum.
Russia is taking advantage of US disinterest in Syria to take control of the country, including areas under opposition control in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Deraa, Golan, Jarabulus and Afrin, along with areas under Kurdish control in Qamishli and Raqqa.
“The goal of forming the constitutional committee is to waste time,” Anwar Al-Bouni, a member of the opposition, said. “The idea is to give the regime and its allies time to take full control of Syria. When this happens, there will be no need for a constitutional committee and it will disappear without achieving anything,” he said.
“A second goal is to embroil the Syrian people in arguments about the constitution, especially regarding religion, ethnicity, type of regime, presidential mandate and so on, and thus deepen divisions,” he added.
A third goal is “for the committee to void UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which stipulates a transitional period and a non-sectarian interim ruling body with a full mandate to draft a new constitution. Even if the committee drafts a constitution that can be voted on, the referendum will be under the control of the regime while 12 million Syrians are in the diaspora overseas.”
With de Mistura’s blessings, the Russians are trying to block or void international resolutions on Syria. If the opposition accepts this, it will mean it has already abandoned the transitional phase and lost the only international card it is still holding even if this only represents a small portion of its demands.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Constitutional moves in Syria