AMMAN — The third round of the Syrian constitutional committee was set to start in Geneva today, before it was delayed after three members of the committee's small body tested positive for COVID-19. It is unclear when or if the committee will reconvene.
This round of the committee—the first in nine months—was expected to discuss “national foundations and principles.” If successful, it would lay the groundwork for the ultimate goal of the committee: drafting a new constitution for Syria.
“We see the success of the constitutional committee as the key to the political solution and we expect that this round will create progress,” Ahmad al-Asrawi, a member of the opposition small group, told Syria Direct. He added that this round will be “just the beginning of a path” to reaching a settlement between the opposition and pro-regime sides.
A new constitution is the first of three steps to achieve UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254, which also calls for free and fair elections and a transitional government. Ultimately, Resolution 2254 seeks a political solution to the Syrian civil war, and both Russia and the US have maintained their commitment to the resolution since its unanimous adoption in 2015.
The constitutional committee is made up of 150 members evenly split into three separate groups: A regime delegation, an opposition delegation and the Syrian civil society delegation, the latter of which was appointed by the UN.
The three groups held a successful first meeting in October 2019 and agreed on a “code of conduct” for subsequent negotiations. However, the second round of the committee in November 2019 quickly fell apart after the regime delegation insisted on establishing certain “national principles” as a prerequisite to creating an agenda for the second round of talks, which the opposition group rejected.
Soon after the second round of talks deteriorated, Syrian government forces and its allied militias renewed a bombing campaign on the last opposition-held pocket of Syria in Idlib. The campaign escalated into a week-long battle between Turkish and pro-regime forces, ultimately resulting in a ceasefire that allowed Damascus to recover more territory and the strategic M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) international highway.
The fact that Damascus was nominally engaged in peace talks while at the same time advancing on the ground created skepticism about its commitment to the constitutional committee. Members of the constitutional committee’s opposition working group also accused the regime of using the committee to create political cover while it changed the facts on the ground to increase its leverage in later negotiations.
Others have similarly accused the regime of trying to drag out the committee process long enough so that the 2021 presidential elections can be held under the old constitution. For his part, on August 12, Bashar al-Assad said that he would only accept “discussing” the 2012 constitution, and refused to entertain its amendment or drafting of a new constitution.
If Assad is successful in conducting the elections before the committee completes its work, he will be in a stronger bargaining position than today, if only due to the appearance of a popular mandate backing his rule.
“Security Council resolution 2254 clearly establishes a framework in which elections administered under UN supervision are to be held in accordance with new constitutional provisions that provide for free and fair elections, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate,” Jenifer Fenton, the spokesperson for the UN Special Envoy to Syria, told Syria Direct on April 29.
“As the 2021 presidential election is due to be held under the current constitution, the Special Envoy does not see, at this stage, a linkage to Security Council resolution 2254,” she added.
Still, the constitutional committee is not solely about creating a new constitution; after all, the Syrian constitution adopted in 2012 already guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Damascus has routinely flouted these rights throughout the last nine years of civil war while ostensibly operating under the constitution.
Instead, the importance of the constitutional committee lies in the fact that it is the sole forum of engagement between the Syrian opposition and regime. The engagement of these two sides, and the further involvement of their respective patrons—the US and Turkey backing the opposition side and Russia and Iran the regime side—is a sign of hope that a political solution under Resolution 2254 is not yet dead.
The US has signaled its renewed support for the constitutional committee, with the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffery, meeting with the heads of the Syrian opposition in Geneva prior to the committee's meeting.
After his meetings in Geneva, Jeffery will travel to Ankara, where he will meet with “senior Turkish officials” to discuss “bilateral cooperation related to the stability of Syria.” It is possible that among other things, Jeffery could discuss the inclusion of the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the committee process, from which it is presently excluded, even though it controls a quarter of Syria and most of its natural resources.
Regardless of what happens in Geneva over the next two weeks, further diplomacy will be needed. The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, told the UNSC on August 19 that the “Constitutional Committee’s work can be a door opener, but cannot in and of itself resolve the conflict.”
This article was updated to note that three members of the small body tested positive for COVID-19.