Battle over the Syrian constitution

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 24 Nov 2018

The world’s leading powers are battling over Syria’s new constitution, with Russia insisting it should be based on the Astana Process and the US wanting to see it supervised by the UN, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Syrian rebels and their relatives evacuating the southern city of Daraa on Tuesday (Photo: AFP )

A Turkish-Russian summit meeting took place on 19 November focusing on the Constituent Assembly (CA) that will meet to draft Syria’s new constitution.

While both sides want to settle the issue, there are core differences between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the nature of the CA.

The meeting came days after a briefing by US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, who has said the first step for the US was “creating a committee under UN supervision to draft a new Syrian Constitution.”

Jeffrey said this would be “a decisive step towards reviving the political process. Our goal, which is supported by Russia, France, Germany and Turkey and was agreed upon in the Istanbul Declaration on 27 October, is to create this Constituent Assembly by the end of the year.”

“We will hold Russia accountable to assemble the Assembly by this deadline and expect [Moscow] to use its influence to bring the regime in Damascus to the table,” he said.

Jeffrey added that the US wanted to see an “irreversible political process” in Syria led by Syrians and guided by the UN that would guarantee that all Iran-backed forces left the country.

He noted that a permanent defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group would not be possible before fundamental changes in the Syrian regime were made and changes in Iran’s role in Syria took place.

The summit between Putin and Erdogan came after the technical teams of both countries failed to agree on the composition of the CA and the failure of outgoing UN envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura to convince the Syrian regime to create a CA based on the UN vision.

De Mistura argued that the CA must be chosen by Syrians and that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should hold one third of its membership. The Syrian regime claims that Russia has urged it not to accept de Mistura’s proposal and to stall the CA.

Russia is concerned about two issues, the first of which is that it wants to see the CA based on the outcomes of the Astana and Sochi meetings in which no Western countries participated.

They stipulated the creation of a “consensus constitution” that would conform with Russian wishes and appease the regime because it would guarantee that the regime was not changed.

Moscow is trying to convince the US to form a CA based on these principles, while Washington wants a CA supervised by the UN.

The second issue is the dispute over quotas in the CA. Russia and the regime want the latter to hold one third of the seats and another third to be composed of the opposition and civil society groups chosen by de Mistura with input from Russia and Iran.

This means that at best the opposition would hold only 15 per cent of the seats in the CA, while the regime and its associates would hold 85 per cent of the seats.

Syrian opposition sources say the international community will put pressure on Moscow if it does not deliver the regime to the negotiating table by the end of the year.

They add that Washington is determined to end the Syrian tragedy by pushing for a political process under a UN umbrella that guarantees Iran’s departure from the region.

Russia is in a difficult position and in dire need of showing its good intentions to the international community. That can only happen by pushing the regime towards the political track and not making unrealistic excuses, however.

While Moscow has been trying to tailor the CA to its liking, preparations are underway to hold another round of the Astana talks at the level of the foreign ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran. The regime and the opposition will not attend the meeting.

These meetings began in December 2017 as a military track to support the ceasefire that was to cover all of Syria.

However, the opposition does not view Astana as a serious attempt to launch political talks because decisions regarding de-escalation were not respected and were violated hundreds of times by the regime, as well as by Russia and Iran.

The Astana statements regarding releasing prisoners as a confidence-building measure towards a political solution were also ignored.

The opposition believes Russia’s goal at Astana is to redirect the political process from negotiations based on the Geneva I Conference calling for the formation of an interim governing body and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 to the Astana Process that supports Al-Assad remaining in power and the incumbent regime.

This would mean regime security agencies continuing to operate at full capacity while marginalising the opposition that embraces a national vision for democratic political change.

According to the opposition, now that Syria has become part of the Iranian issue for the US administration, the Russian and Turkish calculations have also changed. Russia will be pressured to make compromises in Astana, but Moscow will not want to encroach on its core demands and will prevent the CA from tilting towards UN supervision.

The US will not accept these superficial compromises, but Moscow will try to buy time to bolster its control in other areas of Syria.

It wants to limit the problems to the new constitution, while ignoring other matters including the death of nearly one million Syrians, transitional justice, and political change that should be accompanied by overhauling the country’s security agencies.

The problems in Syria go far deeper than the constitution tailored by Al-Assad in 2012, in which he gave himself extraordinary powers and made himself the head of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.

Although the opposition has agreed to participate in the CA, there is still no word on what the membership quotas will be or the mandate or mission.

It is not clear whether the CA will amend the current constitution or draft a new one and what the mechanisms of operation will be. It is also not clear whether the constitution will need to be accepted by all Syrians and not forced on the country from overseas.

Russia will not defer to the UN, but the US will not accept anything less. Meanwhile, the Syrians themselves, both regime and opposition, are too weak to influence the issue, and Iran will try to impede it as much as possible.

The UN will not make any moves unless there is a consensus, and therefore the battle over the constitution in Syria will remain a small part of the bigger global picture.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Battle over the Syrian constitution

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