Prologue to a Constitutional Convention

Bassel Oudat , Friday 20 Sep 2019

Basic principles need to be agreed by all the parties before a Constitutional Convention can be set up in Syria to draft a new constitution for the country as it emerges from civil war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Hassan Rouhani, Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin
From Left, Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia, pose following a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey, September 16, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

The Syrian Constitutional Convention that the UN and Russia are trying to form is still facing problems that are delaying its launch.

Each time the UN envoy to Syria and Russian officials announce that the Convention is just around the corner, marginal or sometimes core, problems surface and prevent progress from taking place.

The many parties involved in the Syrian conflict also continue to find ways of serving their own interests through the planned Constitutional Convention.

There is discord among the Syrian opposition about the convention, which the UN has argued for in several Security Council Resolutions, notably UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and which Russia is focused on launching.

Some opposition circles believe the convention will be the start of a political solution to the crisis in Syria and will embody Moscow’s desire to curb the growing influence of Iran and control the ambitions of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Others, however, believe the convention is an attempt to procrastinate and soften up the opposition without finding a serious solution to the conflict.

Russia wants to see the formation of the convention, since it believes it will be the way towards a political solution in Syria and a mercy shot for the Geneva Conferences on the crisis that issued their first declaration in 2012 but have implemented nothing since.

Russia also believes the new convention will be a key guarantee of the stability of the political system in Syria and will help to marginalise the opposition.

Although Russia and Turkey are generally in agreement in their goals and interests in Syria, this does not mean they have a uniform vision for the future.

Fundamental differences between them regarding the country remain, and Ankara’s position on the Constitutional Convention remains unclear. Deep down it is unenthused, making it hesitant and vague.

At the same time, Turkey is trying to support the Higher Negotiations Committee in Syria and the Syrian Opposition Coalition in the hope that these will marginally hinder Russian and UN efforts with which it does not agree.

Iran remains an obstacle to the convention, although Russia is trying to include it in a solution based on politics not military might, which the leadership in Tehran has rejected since this is likely to accommodate only some of Iran’s interests in Syria.

Iran is not invested in the Constitutional Convention because Moscow’s approach contradicts the “occupying” approach it has adopted that includes the presence of sectarian militias fighting on the ground in Syria linked to the Iranian regime.

The US has not shown much support for the Syrian Constitutional Convention, and it has been dealing with the issue as if it were a marginal matter.

Washington insists that the political process in Syria must be under UN monitoring and sponsorship, and it does not want Moscow to monopolise the future of the Middle East or of Syria in particular.

The Arab countries have remained silent, as if the convention were not their concern because they understand that Syria and the Middle East are a matter for the superpowers and they are likely to have no say.

They do not want to upset the major countries that hold the power to make decisions, and they do not want to confront Turkey or Iran. The greatest absence on the Constitutional Convention are the Arab voices that should have been among those most concerned about Syria’s future.

There is also discord inside Syria about the proposed convention depending upon each camp’s whims. The Syrian Kurds want it to be set up in accordance with their federal aspirations and to support decentralisation and regional autonomy.

The Syrian regime wants the convention to be weak so it can control it and shape it to its own agenda. The opposition wants it to be strong and to guarantee the political transition.

The Islamists want it to adopt religion as the foundation of the new Syrian Constitution. The Syrian Left wants it to call for socialism and internationalism.

Amid these clashing interests and visions, there is a need to revisit the UN Security Council Resolutions that called for the creation of the Constitutional Convention and the dismantling of the current system.

The idea was born at the Sochi Conference on Syria in June 2017, but this left the convention’s purpose unclear. The regime wants to see the convention discuss the existing 2012 Constitution, but the opposition wants it to draft an entirely new one that will pave the way for a democratic and civilian state.

The Russians say the convention is an outcome of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which refers to a new constitution as part of the negotiation process that will conclude in the political transition in Syria, even as the Syrian opposition feels that what Moscow is doing does not comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

The main guarantor of the convention is this resolution, which is supported by the US, Russia, the regional powers and Europe. However, there are problems in interpreting its terms, and countries including Russia argue that the resolution is meant to set guidelines only and there is no obligation to implement all of its clauses.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 stipulates the need for a ceasefire in Syria, the end of the state of siege, safe passage for humanitarian relief and the release of prisoners.

All these measures are non-negotiable, but since the resolution was adopted the opposite has occurred. The siege, starvation, displacement and killing have continued, and there have been continuing clashes over the planned Constitutional Convention.

If Russia does not impose a solution or reach an agreement with Washington, the operation of any convention that can be formed will be precarious and difficult. It is unlikely that such efforts will lead to real results because the chasm between the parties is immense.

The current terms of reference and composition of the Constitutional Convention will likely not deliver a realistic outcome unless there are further rules and regulations before it is born.

Moreover, Syrian human-rights activists say it would be a mistake to draft a new Syrian Constitution at the moment because the country is still at war.

What should be done, they suggest, is to find non-negotiable general principles that cannot be replaced and would guarantee common citizenship, pluralism, the rotation of power, the separation of powers, the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution.

Should these things be agreed beforehand, it would scarcely matter what the Constitutional Convention looked like, or who on it had the loudest voice.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Prologue to a Constitutional Convention

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