An ongoing contention

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Syria’s Constitutional Committee remains without a timeline or mechanism, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus

An ongoing contention
from left: Al-Kuzbari, Pederson, and Al-Bahra

For the first time since the formation of the Constitutional Committee in charge of drafting a new constitution for Syria, the head of the Syrian opposition delegation met with the leader of the regime’s delegation in the presence of UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. It was the first day of the sixth round of talks during which the committee convened for five days in Geneva, concluding discussions at the end of October.

For the first time, the joint chairpersons of the committee Hadi Al-Bahra (representing the opposition) and Ahmed Al-Kuzbari (representing the regime) agreed on the main themes of the basic principles to be discussed, and the draft mechanism for action to complete the Syrian Constitution. But this mechanism, which Al-Bahra described as a quasi-mechanism, will not in itself make the session a fruitful one. The sixth session of talks ended in the same way as its predecessors – without any tangible results or agreements worth mentioning.

The formula that both sides agreed on in this session requires four drafting texts on constitutional issues, and will be discussed by all Syrian parties: the opposition, the regime and civil society. It will move from one topic to the next, even if agreement is not reached. On the last day, these parties will draft a consensus text after taking into account all opinions and discussions.

The constitutional issues on the agenda for reaching an understanding were contradictory, since each delegation presented a constitutional issue that reflected its own interests and outlook. The opposition prioritised the army, security and intelligence agencies, while civil society representatives focused on the sovereignty of the state, and the regime delegation was most interested in two issues: state sovereignty, and terrorism and extremism. In fact, terrorism and extremism is the only subject the regime has shown interest in since the launch of the Constitutional Committee two years ago; the regime has indeed designed a constitutional article that -- if approved - will view all Syrian opposition and most of those who fled Syria as terrorists or partners in terrorism.

On the last day of talks, the three sides met in the hope of reaching consensus. The opposition amended their documents to include the observations and objections of the regime, but the regime delegation refused to amend a single word in its proposal, telling Pedersen, “We cannot change a single word, and anything presented by the opposition will not be approved.”

The sixth round ended in disappointment, as publicly stated by Pedersen at a briefing to the UN Security Council after the sixth session. “Discussions on the last day were disappointing,” he admitted. “We need to reach an understanding on an action mechanism to help the Constitutional Committee act on its mandate to draft a constitution.” The special envoy added that there will be consultations in several capitals gradually to develop a broader political process.

The Syrian opposition asserted that the regime is undermining the Constitutional Committee, claiming it is absurd to anticipate anything different in future talks because if the same dynamic continues, then failure is certain. The opposition urged countries sponsoring the peace process in Syria, a political solution and the Constitutional Committee, to intervene to force the regime to agree on mechanisms that guarantee results at the end of every session of talks, and every discussion of each constitutional article.

“If we want positive results, we must continue with the methodology and come up with mechanisms that guarantee results,” Al-Bahra declared. “The three sides must have the desire to reach understandings. Unfortunately, until this moment, the regime does not have this desire. Its delegation was not interested in reaching understandings.”

He added, “This constitutional process cannot survive if the status quo remains, and if there is no global consensus and genuine support and determination by all Syrian parties to reach a political solution. This is the only option that would guarantee sustainable stability and security, and application of Security Council Resolution 2254. Without changing how the Constitutional Committee operates, we will keep having the same results.”

After this session of talks, the opposition was divided into two groups. The first, loudly demanding that the opposition delegation to the Constitutional Committee must resign and boycott talks forever, assert that the actions of the opposition’s delegation are a betrayal of the revolution because the regime has not and will not be responsive in any way, it continues to procrastinate, waste time and legitimise its crimes. Thus, the committee paves the way to rehabilitating and accepting the regime on the global stage, without giving alternatives and without realising that this committee is mandated by the UN and is the only option for Syria right now. But it is also pointed out that there are no real or even possible alternatives for the opposition.

“The Constitutional Committee is an international platform that must continue,” urged Al-Bahra. “It is the only platform, and must be shored up and supported. We met many parties who are interested in the Syrian issue, including regional and world countries such as the US, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others. We need to harness their determination in order for the Constitutional Committee to begin writing the first articles of the anticipated Syrian Constitution.”

The second group of Syrians believes the regime’s delegation is unwavering and obstructionist, reflecting Russia’s desire, but now Moscow is aware that procrastination and failure of this committee does not serve its interests. Russia understands that due to the disappointing outcome of this session and the regime’s determination to make it fail, Russia must take firm measures or pressure the regime to be more rational and practical in the next round, and agree to genuinely begin drafting the new constitution. This group built its rationale on intentions since there are no direct talks between Russia and the opposition on this subject.

“The Russians need a political win,” explained Yehia Al-Oredi, spokesperson for the negotiating team. “Meanwhile, the regime doesn’t care about the Syrian people or making progress towards a political solution.” Al-Oredi asserted that Moscow needs to make any progress in the Constitutional Committee.

The Syrian regime refuses to set a timeline for drafting a constitution, insisting that there is no outer interference in its work, which is why there is little progress after six rounds of talks and nearly two years since the committee’s creation. Criticism of the Constitutional Committee continues and disappointments go on, as the regime continues to obstruct its work, blocking the path to a political resolution. Meanwhile, Syrians are divided between supporting this committee or pulling the plug.

The Constitutional Committee is a technical one, its mission and mandate to draft a constitution or constitutional declaration or temporary constitution or constitutional document for Syria. It does not have the power to sign any political solutions or settlements, and is not in lieu of either the opposition or regime. Rather, it represents all sides and is not a substitute for any of them. Its primary task is to draft constitutional content and the constitution it will produce will be put to a popular referendum, in a safe and objective climate. After that, the committee will be dissolved.

Although it has achieved nothing in six sessions, this committee is the only political action plan that is recognised by the global community. It is based on UN resolutions that are accepted and approved by countries involved in the Syrian conflict. Some believe that the end of this committee will be the end of every option, and the death of the political track due to international impotence or inaction.

“The committee must survive, because it proves the dependence of the regime’s delegation, its lack of free will and intransigence on serious proposals,” asserted Bashar Al-Haj Ali, a dissident diplomat. “These rounds of talks can be used as a media platform to keep the Syrian tragedy in the spotlight. We can also benefit from popular interaction and international political action to revive other tools to reach a political solution and a transitional phase.”

He added, “The Syrian Constitutional Committee is the first political deal officially signed and sealed with the UN secretary general between the Syrian opposition and regime. It was signed by the foreign minister at the time. Its formation equated the opposition and the regime on everything, and undermines the legitimacy of the regime because it agreed to participate in drafting a constitution in a committee that is outside its authority and constitutional institutions. It is a landmark in the political arena, and we should not abandon it. Neither should we ignore all that we can do besides relying on it.”

It is clear the opposition must remain in the Constitutional Committee because there are no alternatives on the horizon, and no one is prepared to launch new tracks for a political solution in Syria after this track was finally approved, with difficulty. The opposition must work hard to shore up this committee by appointing stronger, more experienced and knowledgeable negotiators to their delegation. At the same time, by persuading international and Arab parties to pressure the regime by all means to set a firm timeline and mechanism that leads to results.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the opposition should think of other tracks to pursue if a timeline and mechanism for drafting a new constitution do not materialise, because withdrawing from the Constitutional Committee is the inevitable logical choice if these two requirements are not met.

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