AMMAN — In spite of the celebratory language that characterized the UN announcement of the formation of the Syrian constitutional committee as a “sign of hope for the long-suffering Syrian people,” the committee’s meetings, which started on October 30, do not seem to meet the presumed expectations. The gap that Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, is trying to bridge between the Syrian government and opposition delegations appears to be widening.

The second round of meetings, which was concluded in Geneva on November 29, witnessed “deep” divisions and a “sharp” conflict over the agenda of the talks between the two opposing delegations. As a result, the days allocated for talks ended without any meetings or noticeable results. 

The Syrian government’s delegation rejected proposals put forward by the Syrian opposition, insisting on proposals related to what it terms the “national principles” instead as well as other topics that the Syrian opposition deems to fall outside the mandate of the constitutional committee.

This prompted the US Department of State to accuse the Syrian government’s delegation of obstructing the work of the committee. In a press statement, they noted that the delegation was demanding “preconditions” at the constitutional committee’s small body meeting “before they were willing to meet to discuss these constitutional principles.”

A stalled round of talks

According to the constitutional committee’s “Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure,” agreed upon by both the Syrian government and the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the constitutional committee “shall have a large and a small body.” The latter is tasked with preparing and drafting the constitutional proposals and comprises 45 members selected from among the original 150 members of the constitutional committee or the “large body” and represent, evenly, the Syrian government, opposition and civil society. 

Also, the two co-chairs of the committee facilitate and propose “an agenda and work-plans that enable all issues to be considered.” They are supposed to agree on the agenda and work-plan for each round of talks at least 72 hours before the scheduled session, according to the head of the opposition delegation, Hadi al-Bahra.

The government delegation rejected the opposition’s five proposals for the agenda in the last round, Ahmad al-Asrawi, a member of the small body told Syria Direct. In return, the co-chair for the Syrian government, Ahmad Kuzbari, did not submit his proposal until the first day of the second round of talks, which “included one paragraph about what he terms the Syrian ‘national principles [of interest to the Syrian people’].”

While the last round ended with the withdrawal of the government delegation, member of the small body, and the deputy chairman of the HNC, Jamal Suleiman, said that “the Syrian regime delegation did not withdraw, but stalled everything and evaded any commitments to the agendas related to the constitutional process”. 

“It wanted to get political positions from the opposition, which is outside the mandate of the constitutional committee,” Suleiman told Syria Direct

Fares al-Khalidi, an opposition-member of the small body, told Syria Direct that the regime’s strategy of stalling and disruption can be attributed to the “dictator’s belief that he is in a good position till the end.” He also noted that the regime is relying on “the changing international climate towards a solution in Syria, and delaying the collapse of the internal front in such a way that the political opposition is defeated by emptying [UN] Resolution 2254.” 

 It seems that the government delegation succeeded in its task of “stalling,” ending the second round of talks between the committee’s small body “without moving forward, even a single step,” noted al-Asrawi.

Weak pretexts

The government delegation used several pretexts to obstruct the second round of talks, mainly through referencing national values, combating terrorism and denouncing economic sanctions placed on Syria. However, these were “very weak pretexts,” according to Sulieman. 

“Any national principle must be discussed under the basic principles underpinning the constitution,” he said. However, the problem lies with Damascus’ definition of “national principles.”

The regime considers “fighting terrorism to be one of the [national] principles and considers anyone who carried a weapon to be a terrorist,” he added. “We know thousands of Syrians that picked up weapons who cannot be described as terrorists, but the regime wants to include them on the list of terrorists. The regime sees anyone who stood against it, or didn’t agree with its policies, as a terrorist.”

 Nevertheless, Suleiman expressed support to discussing “terrorism” within the constitution, as the Syrian society needs “specific materials in the constitution to combat terrorism and extremism in general to prevent hate speech, sectarianism and violence.”

In the same vein, al-Khalidi asserted  that the pretexts used by the regime have no logical or realistic basis that is consistent with the status and mission of the constitutional committee. In his view, these pretexts were employed by the regime “to waste time.”

“When the [regime] puts forward national principles, it’s forgetting that it handed over the country and its people to several occupying powers. The nation lost its sovereignty by pledging political projects that serve the ruling gang,” he added. The regime wants to “restore its political legitimacy and show that the opposition is in league with foreign powers.”

Al-Khalidi added that “no one accepts terrorism or occupation nor its results in any form, and there is no one that does not dream of a strong state that protects the Syrian [citizen] and maintains its rights and dignity.”

A “Turkish delegation” vs. an “Iranian delegation”

The mandate of the constitutional committee that was agreed to under the sponsorship of the UN is to “prepare and draft constitutional reform for public approval as a contribution to the political settlement in Syria and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.” In this context, it “may review the 2012 Constitution including in the context of other Syrian constitutional experiences and amend the current constitution or draft a new constitution.” 

However, according to Suleiman, the government delegation tried to derail the work of the committee by “issuing statements against the economic sanctions and by making political statements which have no relation to the constitution and is not at the heart of the committee’s work.” 

The government delegation avoided mentioning the constitutional process and the constitution, he added. “The committee also had procedural rules and the delegation avoided agreeing on any agenda items related to drafting the constitution and discussing its articles.” 

“The opposition delegation demanded to be stated at the beginning of the proposed agenda that: according to the constitutional committee mandate and core rules of procedure, we agree to the following,” the opposition member of the small body Basma Qadmani told Syria Direct. Adding that “the regime’s delegation did not like it.” 

“This statement may seem repetitive and insignificant but it is extremely important and we insist on it. This is what made the sessions impossible."

The government delegation "did not specify the [national] principles; we heard about them in the media,” Qadmani added, and “it was acting as if they were examining the opposition delegation to find out if it is patriotic or not.”

In a statement to reporters in Geneva after the failure of the last round, the head of the government delegation, Kuzbari described the delegation of the opposition as "the delegation of the Turkish regime” that “rejected the basic national principles that concern the Syrian people that is related to the absolute rejection of occupation and the criminalization of relations with the occupying force and combating terrorism.” 

Al-Bahra, in return, described the government delegation as "the delegation of the barrels that works according to [the orders] of its Iranian operator."

The opposition delegation’s strategy

Al-Asrawi summarized the situation during the second round as the presence of "two different positions between the government and opposition delegations.” While “the first does not want to discuss the fundamental tasks of this committee, the second wants to discuss  it according to its approved rules of procedure."

“The issues that both parties deem nationally certain will be included in the constitution,” Qadmani said. She reiterated that the opposition delegation will not enter the meeting hall without an agenda.

It is an agenda that must embody "adherence to the constitutional process, according to what was stated in its formation decision and rules of procedure," Suleiman said.

Despite the success of the government delegation in obstructing the work of the second round, Qadamani said that "the regime is forced to attend and participate but it does not wish to discuss, reform or change the constitution.” The opposition's insistence "on the agenda according to the rules of procedure caused us to lose entry to the hall this time but made us gain long-term fixation of the rules. We will not accept breaches to the rules.”

“The UN special envoy was insisting that the rules [of procedure] be respected. He told us that he will not facilitate an incomprehensible process; its features and rules." 

Qadamani acknowledged, however, that the UN’s role as a facilitator for the work of the constitutional committee, makes the international organization “a guarantor of respect for the rules [of procedure]. Thus, [the Special Envoy] cannot intervene to solve a problem when the situation is this difficult.” 

Accordingly, Pedersen announced the conclusion of the second round of talks without the gathering of the small body due to the lack of agreement on the agenda of the heads of government and opposition delegations. 

In addition to this, the civil society delegation was divided into two groups, according to Qadamani. One is considered to be a government supporter, “whose views do not differ from the regime’s conglomeration. The other, independent and not following either side but their views converge with those of the opposition.” 

If neither the government nor opposition delegation enters the meeting hall, the civil society delegation also cannot enter, making its role “limited” in light of the deep divisions revealed in the second round, Qadmani added.

From Geneva to Idlib

While stalling in Geneva, Damascus was doing its best to sabotage the work of the constitutional committee by bombing civilians in northwestern Syria, despite the region being included in the de-escalation agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran. 

Just days before the start of the second round of the committee, the regime shelled, on November 21, the Qah Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in the northern countryside of Idlib, killing 12 civilians and wounding 20. During the talks, Russia and the regime continued to carry out raids in Idlib, leading members of the civil society delegation to the constitutional committee to demand either a ceasefire or a halt in the committee’s meetings. 

According to Qadmani, “the regime is deliberately escalating the situation in Idlib before this round [of the committee], given the international community’s cooperation with Russia and complete silence, to pressure us to withdraw from the committee process.”

This would be “the greatest gift we could give the regime, to end the work of the committee that the regime never wanted in the first place,” she said. 

Suleiman agreed, stressing that the withdrawal of the opposition delegation "will not happen", especially since "the withdrawal from the committee will not stop the killing and fighting."

Although “protest notes, statements and communication with states and the UN special envoy regarding the bombing is the prerogative of the HNC," according to Qadamani, "the presence of numerous members of the Constitutional Committee at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva along with the special envoy and his team, allows for the discussion of other issues—such as detainees and the situation in Idlib—through informal backchannels.” 

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani, William Christou, and Nada Atieh