AMMAN—After years of countless negotiations and meetings, Syria’s “constitutional committee” begins its work in Geneva today. This comes more than a month after the announcement made by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, regarding the formation of the committee as an integral part of the political solution to the Syrian conflict. 

The formation of the committee can be traced back to the UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Adopted in December 2015, Resolution 2254 provides a framework for a new Syrian constitution. The official work on the formation of the committee, however, was delayed until the conclusion of the March 2017 Geneva IV peace talks on Syria.

During the peace talks, the then-UN Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, presented what was known as the “four baskets” to end the conflict. The “baskets” included: drafting a new constitution, the creation of a credible and non-sectarian government, free and fair elections and a counterterrorism strategy. 

At the same time, Russia, Turkey and Iran -the guarantor states of the Astana Talks- announced the creation of three de-escalation zones, as well as a fourth zone in accordance with a separate agreement reached between the US and Russia. Quickly, the “guarantor states” dominated the committee tasked with drafting the new constitution. 

At Russia’s invitation, the so-called Syrian National Dialogue Conference was convened in the Russian port city of Sochi, in December 2018.

On September 16, 2019, leaders from Russia, Turkey and Iran announced that the constitutional drafting committee would soon be launched with a meeting in Astana. 

According to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, the meeting is set to include “experts from Russia, Turkey, Iran, the UN and the Syrian side, in addition to representatives from observing nations.” 

Consequences of the constitutional committee

Despite Guterres’ optimism for the formation of the constitutional committee, characterizing it as a “very important step towards creating the conditions for a political solution to this tragic conflict,” Syrians who spoke with Syria Direct were skeptical about the committee fulfilling its mandate. Opposition human rights activist, Anwar al-Bunni, went so far as to describe it as a “pretext to fulfill a military agenda on the ground.”

In Bunni’s view, even if the committee were successful, it would merely be an attempt to “abolish UN Resolution 2254, skip the transitional phase, and overlook the prosecution of war criminals.” 

UN Resolution 2254 called for the formation of a transitional government and elections under the supervision of the UN. It also expressed support for a political process to form a credible governing body, as well as the adoption of a new constitution. 

The director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Fadl Abdulghani, said that “the constitutional committee violates and contravenes international law.” He argued that the correct path forward for Syria is through the “declaration of a transitional governing body, from which a constitutional committee would emerge. After that, presidential elections would be held.” 

According to Abdulghani, the work of the constitutional committee under the current conditions not only bypasses the UN resolutions but also puts their legitimacy at stake and provokes fears about dependence on external political actors. 

The beginning of constitutional committee’s work raises important questions about the political process in general, given that it comes before the formation of a transitional governing body, according to Abdulghani; “Who will control it? Who will oversee its work? What is the source of its legitimacy?”

While if the constitutional committee were to be formed through a transitional government, then the previous questions would not be present as “the committee would be governed by the [transitional body],” Abdulghani added. 

In addition to distorting the future political solution in Syria, in its current form the constitutional committee also threatens to undermine human rights issues as it allows Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. 

According to al-Bunni, the commencement of the committee “preserves the legitimacy of the regime despite what it did, legitimizes its constitution, and subsequently, prevents any attempts to prosecute [war] criminals.” 

Contrary to its stated goal, “the goal of the constitutional committee is to protect criminals,” he said.

“The logical thing is the presence of a transitional political body which creates a secure environment for the constitutional drafting committee,” the spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, Dr. Yahya Aridi, told Syria Direct

However, “all of the parties have a different [understanding] of the issue, especially when we take into account the fact that the regime does not want to engage in the political process,” he said. Thus “the constitutional committee constitutes a critical turning point in achieving a political solution.” 

At the same time, he emphasized that the success of the committee and what follows “is dependent on those responsible for keeping the regime alive, meaning the Russians. So if Russia wants to reap political gains, it must drag the regime through the political process.”

Likewise, according to Aridi, while the constitutional committee represents “the gateway to a political solution,” the High Negotiation Committee “safeguards the rights of Syrians which have been specified in international resolutions, including Resolution 2254.”  

After the completion of a meeting between the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, and Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem, in Damascus on September 23, the latter affirmed “Damascus's commitment to the political process and its readiness to continue cooperating with the Special Envoy for the success of its mission.” 

However, Aridi has not ruled out the possibility of the “regime obstructing the committee’s work in the future.” He further accused the Syrian government of employing “military methods and suppressing anyone who says no.” 

“The political process is very harmful to the regime and it wants to resist it,” Aridi added. “It has created obstacles for the process, as the end of the regime is linked to its engagement with the political process.” 

 

*The article reflects minor changes made at 30/10/2019, 3:22 PM

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh, Rohan Advani, Will Christou and Lauren Remaley.