Battles over the Syrian constitution

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 5 Nov 2019

The committee tasked with drafting a new Syrian constitution met in Geneva this week against a background of mutual accusations and recrimination, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Battles over the Syrian constitution
Syrians walk past a burning motorcycle at the site of a car bomb explosion in the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Tal Abyad (photo: AFP))

After a long series of meetings in Astana, Sochi and elsewhere, the Syrian Committee in charge of drafting a new constitution began its work in Geneva this week, with 150 members equally divided between the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the opposition and civil society.

After two days of jostling and mutual accusations, the regime accused the opposition of being traitors, and the opposition countered that the regime must be toppled. Members of the civil-society delegation oscillated between the two.

Co-chairmen of the committee Hadi Al-Bahra for the opposition and Ahmed Al-Kazbari for the regime agreed that the first meeting should focus on deciding the committee’s work plan and then discuss ideas that could be the pillars of a new constitution.

Around two-thirds of the committee members travelled back to the countries where they reside, leaving only 45 members in Geneva.

The day the working committee was to begin its work, the session was suspended after the regime delegation asked that work be limited to two hours a day or ten hours a week. The opposition wanted to work for eight hours a day or 40 hours a week and asserted that the regime’s move showed its procrastination on finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

Saeed Moqbel, a member of the opposition, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the regime wanted to work for only two hours a day or 500 hours a year. “At this rate, discussing the new constitution could take a decade,” Moqbel said.

“This is exactly what the regime wants to do. The problem is that the UN has not specified a timeline for the committee to finish its work, and it takes decisions by consensus or a 75 per cent majority. Finding a consensus constitution, if a consensus is reached, could take decades.”

“There is no time limit on the working committee’s work, and it will work continuously to draft clauses that can be later discussed in the full committee,” Al-Bahra said.

The opposition abandoned a key demand that the UN envoy to Syria should stipulate a timeline for the committee’s work to prevent the regime from procrastinating. After 18 months of waiting, an agreement was reached to form the committee, with UN Envoy Geir Pedersen launching it on 30 October to draft a new constitution as the start of a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Meetings have been peppered with arguments between opposition and regime delegates about the technical details of meetings and members, which led to Pedersen’s producing a code of conduct that he distributed to members to prevent verbal clashes, delays and chaos in meetings.

The code says that discussions must be in the spirit of consensus, constructive engagement, the participation of all parties, mutual respect and respect for the committee. These are, of course, usual expectations, but in the case of Syria it was necessary to restate them.

The aspirations of the opposition at the first sessions were low, which displeased those they represent as they are seen as useless in a time of war. The rhetoric of the civil-society members was even more surprising, because they were expected somehow to fill the gap between the opposition and the regime.

However, the delegation’s positions were almost identical to those of the regime, arguing to let bygones be bygones, forget old wounds and view what is happening as a crisis the consequences of which the regime should not bear alone.

Speaking about the opposition’s aspirations, Cameran Hajo, a committee member, told the Weekly that “UN Security Council Resolution 2254 refers to a new Syrian Constitution, while the regime delegation is talking about only amending the current one. The opposition wants a new constitution and mechanisms to apply it,” he said.

“This takes us back to UN Resolution 2254, which calls for forming an interim ruling body with broad powers to secure this mechanism.”

“We want this new constitution to achieve what none of its predecessors could since the creation of the independent Syrian state, and we want it to reflect the national and religious diversity of Syrian society. It must show that Syria is a country of multiple identities and cultures and guarantee the national rights of all its Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, Assyrian Syriac and other identities,” Hajo said.

Less radical demands include holding meetings in the Syrian capital Damascus under the supervision of the security apparatus. This is what the Moscow-backed opposition wanted, along with members from civil society.

The regime delegation was hostile to the opposition, describing its members as mercenaries, terrorists and individuals colluding with foreigners. This confrontational rhetoric not only impacted the committee sessions, but also convinced several opposition members that regime officials had been given instructions to destroy the process.

This notion has been backed by statements from Al-Assad, who said that members of the regime delegation do not represent the regime and the outcome of the meetings would be unacceptable.

In an interview with Syrian television after the launch of the committee, Al-Assad said his government was not represented on the committee and that the delegation allegedly representing the regime was merely “people of the same political stripe as the Syrian government.”

The opposition delegation was made up of “terrorists,” he said, noting that the committee was part of the Sochi Process sponsored by Russia and Iran. Al-Assad said that the Geneva Conference on Syria had been ignored, cancelling anything resulting from the committee.

The committee bypasses the Geneva I Declaration on Syria and UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which called for a political transition, the forming of an interim body with broad executive powers, and a neutral environment for the transitional phase to move forward.

It includes members of the incumbent government, the opposition and other groups and calls for overhauling the Syrian constitutional and legal systems. The decisions of the committee will be put to a referendum. After creating a new constitutional system, it will be necessary to prepare for free-and-fair elections under international supervision.

“The committee is meeting in Geneva, was created by a UN Resolution, and its members cannot go to Damascus when they are on [the regime’s] wanted lists. Their lives are in danger,” Al-Bahra said.

“Syria’s new constitution will be written by Syrians, and no foreigners are allowed. There is no ready-made formula,” he added.

The situation of the committee seems to be worse than reported in the media. Even Pedersen admitted that “we must not place too much hope on this committee, which will not solve the Syrian crisis.”

What worries the opposition is the absurdity of the regime’s position, since its head, Al-Assad, has already said he will not be bound by the committee’s decisions. His foreign minister earlier said that the government could “drown” the opposition and others in details, convincing many Syrians on both sides to be sceptical of the committee.

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