Syrian constitution: A non-solution

Bassel Oudat , Thursday 14 Feb 2019

Russia reiterates it will form a constituent assembly to draft a constitution for Syria. But this would only circumvent addressing more vital issues, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Sergei Lavrov, Mevlut Cavusoglu and Javad Zarif
File Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R)and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif agree on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 18, 2018 (Reuters)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that a Syrian constituent assembly is almost complete, with the support of the UN, that will launch a comprehensive peace process in Syria.

The assembly will include representatives of the regime, the opposition, civil society, local organisations and 45 Syrian politicians and human rights activists. 

The assembly is expected to be divided into three groups: one third representing the regime; one third the opposition and one third will be 15 figures from civil society and local organisations.

The constituent assembly faces several obstacles, most notably that the opposition insists that a political solution must be achieved based on the 2012 Geneva Declaration, international resolutions and declarations, especially UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015 which includes an agenda for political negotiations and steps that guarantee measures of mutual confidence building.

These would begin with the release of prisoners and the disappeared, information about the fate of the missing, as well as the safe and voluntary return of the displaced to their homes — something the regime and Iran openly reject, as does Russia discreetly.

The regime insists that the constituent assembly must have a two-thirds majority for the regime to ensure that the outcome serves its goals. Russia is not stern in rejecting this request which contradicts what former UN envoy to Syria Stefan de Mistura suggested of an equal three-way split.

He proposed three categories: the opposition; regime and independent figures and organisations which de Mistura would pick as the UN representative. The idea compounded the problem which became more complicated by the day.

Thus, it is unlikely that a constituent assembly will be approved anytime soon. The regime vetoed all constitutional experts in the one third of independents that the UN picked. So far, there is no agreement on names, and guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey and Iran) have not yet agreed with the UN on the list.

The opposition, represented by the High Negotiations Commission (HNC), has already rejected Russia’s list because it was not “balanced or comprehensive”.

It prefers that the issue of the constituent assembly remain unresolved in the hope that agreement is reached after the three-way summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian city of Sochi, 14 February, today.

“The regime has not only vetoed constitution experts, but everything to do with the constituent assembly and political process,” said HNC Spokesman Yehia Al-Aridi, “because it does not want the political process to proceed. This is supported by Iran which now feels it has lost everything and is being smothered. It can only be saved by more chaos and tension.”

The opposition believes that new UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen is serious about the UN’s one third quota in the constituent assembly.

He understands the position of the opposition more than de Mistura did and has the support of the UN. Russia also supports this position because it wants to make political gains, but is not tough with the regime, wants to remain tactical and maintain its military accomplishments.

This means peace will never be achieved without a US presence to put pressure on Moscow, the regime and Tehran.

The three-way summit is important but unlikely to have direct results regarding the constituent assembly. The Astana talks, to discuss implementation details of the constituent assembly, have been postponed until April.

Instead, the primary topic at the Sochi summit will be the vacuum created in northern Syria after the US withdraws. Some believe Astana may not take place at all, and the decision on the constituent assembly will remain in the hands of the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The political process between the opposition and regime, according to the UN and its resolution that could lead to political transition in Syria, is based on four components: an interim governing body; the constitutional process; the electoral process and security and fighting terrorism.

The constitutional process is part of this entire process, not a separate item, which means all tracks must move in parallel — especially the release of prisoners.

The quarrel is not limited to the names of those in the last one third of the constituent assembly, but is in fact disagreement on the mechanism of the assembly’s operation, decision-making, references and the force of its decisions.

Contrary to UN resolutions and principles, which the opposition insists on, Russia wants to form a constituent assembly based on the output of the Sochi conference, to promote that framework which includes Russia, Iran and Turkey, and not the UN one, in order to distribute power and roles amongst themselves and on the ground.

The Syrian regime succeeded in overwhelming countries involved in Syria in a maelstrom of marginal facts and problems, causing them to forget the heart of the issue.

It enmeshed them in details that have nothing to do with the original issue of holding the regime accountable for the war crimes and genocide it committed over the past eight years.

The regime struck deals at the expense of destroying Syria with the assistance of allies who want a large piece of the cake in Syria’s future, whether military, strategic, political or economic.

“Accepting the regime as a party to negotiations and not labelling it as a war criminal that has committed massacres and crimes against humanity is unacceptable from a political, international law and humanitarian perspective,” Nizar Al-Sahli, a researcher and writer, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“For the regime to participate in drawing up Syria’s future after destroying its present is an important and early diplomatic indicator that the Syrian people will be denied their right to freedom, justice, dignity and citizenship. It denotes that the regime was able to abort attempts to overthrow the oppressors of the Syrian people.”

This can be seen on the ground. Everyone is ignoring the heart of the issue and is intentionally trying to hide it. This explains statements by the Russians, Iranians and Turks that they are in agreement, while the regime declares it is “victorious” and Russia announces it is “in control” and the regime and its functions will not change.

A fundamental drive of the Syrian Revolution was to change the constitution, which currently allows the regime to remain in power indefinitely. Suggested amendments by the regime and its allies will not achieve even a small part of what the revolutionaries want.

Pro-regime media have reported on dates for future meetings and when the constituent assembly could be ready, but this does not mean that the foundation for Syria’s future is in place, according to all international organisations.

It is only an attempt to gain some popularity and impose a de facto reality on the opposition and some regional countries, while postponing a political clash between the US and Russia.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Syrian constitution: A non-solution

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