New talks on Syria?

Bassel Oudat , Friday 21 Oct 2022

Efforts are being made to reactivate the political process on the Syrian crisis after a five-month standstill, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.

New talks on Syria
Syria s Foreign Minister Miqdad (r) receives Pedersen (l) in the Damascus on Monday (photos: AFP)


Some four-and-a-half months since the last meeting between the opposition and the Syrian regime, UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen has once again tried to jumpstart the stalled political track to resolve the Syrian crisis.

On Monday, Pedersen met with Syrian officials to discuss whether the government would agree to participate in a ninth round of talks of the country’s Constitutional Committee. The regime had previously said it would not participate unless demands made by Russia are met.

Pedersen’s efforts come two weeks after a meeting between the Syrian opposition and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to discuss new developments on the ground and humanitarian matters. They also discussed the political process, which stalled when the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad refused to participate in a meaningful manner to reach a comprehensive political transition in Syria.

The opposition group that met with Guterres and Pedersen included chair of the National Coalition Salem Al-Meslet, head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) Badr Al-Jamous, joint chair of the Syrian Constitutional Committee Hadi Al-Bahra, and head of the interim Syrian government Abdel-Rahman Mustafa.

Their focus was on the importance of reviving the political process, opening all tracks included in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and not allowing the regime to block the negotiations track.

Pedersen suggested a step-by-step approach as a solution to the frozen political track. But the opposition refuses to “barter humanitarian issues” with the regime, such as the issue of detainees or humanitarian aid, in exchange for concessions on political issues that would violate international resolutions on Syria.

It said there was a need for compliance with UN resolutions that aim to achieve a tangible political transformation in the country. There was a need to return to the table to draft a new constitution by reviving the Constitutional Committee that had earlier made some progress.

According to Al-Jamous, the opposition wants to see a genuine political solution in Syria that ends the suffering of the Syrian people through the full application of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. He demanded the creation of an independent mechanism on the detainees and those missing in Syria in order to achieve justice and accountability.

He added that the UN should oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid in Syria and urged the continuation of sanctions against the regime if it is not responsive to the political solutions proposed in UN resolutions.

“The political process requires resilience to make it a reality. We must work on all tracks. The Geneva track or the Constitutional Committee process are not our only options. We are also working on building an international coalition to achieve a political solution and implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254 to the letter,” Al-Jamous said.

Four and-a-half months ago, the regime decided to freeze the political track and pulled out of the Constitutional Committee talks. The opposition insists that the committee should continue to work, since it said it was the only effective and viable political track in the country.

Russia wants the Constitutional Committee talks to convene somewhere other than Switzerland where it is currently located. According to leaked reports, Russia is annoyed with Berne’s position on the war in Ukraine, and Switzerland is refusing to issue visas to Russian diplomats.

Al-Bahra told Al-Ahram Weekly that he rejected Moscow’s interference. “The Constitutional Committee was formed under the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It operates under the facilitation of the UN and can only be under UN auspices and supervision. It meets in Geneva, one of the UN’s principal headquarters. In fact, the political process in Syria is even called the Geneva track,” he said.

He said that the interference of a foreign country in deciding where the committee should meet is unacceptable. “Meeting Russia’s demand as a precondition for the regime to return to the talks has nothing to do with the Syrian people and is proof that the regime is disconnected from reality. It is a way for it to avoid meeting its obligations under Resolution 2254 and evidence that foreign interests trump Syrian interests.”

“But the committee was formed with an agreement on its mandate and basic elements, and these clearly stipulate that it will be under Syrian ownership facilitated by the UN. It clearly states that the committee will work to serve the interests of the Syrian people without outside interference. Therefore, it is unacceptable to suspend its work for any reason, especially to comply with the demands of a foreign party.”

The positions of the US, Europe, the Arab countries and Turkey remain steadfast in boycotting the Syrian regime and supporting the demands of the opposition. Officials from these countries continue to declare their support for the political process in Syria. While some Syrians worry about statements by Turkey implying it will reconcile itself with the regime, senior Turkish officials deny this and assert their commitment to supporting a political solution.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a meeting with the committee and the SNC that his country is working on pressuring Russia and the Syrian regime to reach a political solution, adding that this would have to be under Security Council Resolution 2254.

Commenting on the position of the Arab countries, Al-Jamous said that “there is consistency in the positions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar. They support the aspirations of the Syrian people in achieving freedom, the return of refugees, and implementing all international resolutions.”

If the political track continues to falter, it is likely the opposition will propose holding an international conference to formulate a roadmap to implement UN Resolution 2254. In September, the SNC met in Geneva with representatives from 15 Western countries that support the opposition. The participants restated their support for a political solution based on UN Resolution 2254, the restarting of the work of the Constitutional Committee, and committed themselves to reaching a comprehensive political solution.

Meetings were held in New York with many representatives of Western countries, most notably the US. All these aimed to form a global lobby group to pressure the Syrian regime to restart the track towards a political solution.

While the international community has the power to exert more pressure for the implementation of the resolution, this has not happened yet. If this resolution continues to be ignored, the Syrian cause will divert to tracks on which the regime wants to go including normalising relations with the Arab countries or reconciling with Turkey, continuing the Astana Process led by Russia, or even including the Syrian issue on the agenda of the nuclear talks with Iran.

All of these would make Syria dependent on international whims, and Al-Bahra believes that making progress on the Constitutional Committee is the best option for the country, though this will mean “changing the method of dealing with the committee, changing the mechanisms of its discussions, and revising the timing and frequency of meetings.”

“The regime cannot disrupt the work of the Constitutional Committee, which is an essential path within the political process. The Syrian opposition is working to build policies with friendly and brotherly countries to create a counter pressure and activate the political process,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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