Geir Pedersen, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, mediates between Hadi al-Bahra and Ahmad Kuzbari, the co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, during the eighth round of meetings, held in Geneva, 31//2022 (United Nations)
PARIS — The Syrian Constitutional Committee’s ninth session, scheduled to take place in Geneva this week, was canceled this month after United Nations Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, announced on July 16 that the meetings were “no longer possible.” The Committee, which made no tangible progress in previous rounds, appears to have reached an impasse.
The ninth round was canceled after the Syrian regime delegation stipulated that the meetings’ venue be moved from the Swiss city of Geneva. The delegation representing Damascus “will be ready to participate in the ninth round only when what it described as the requests from the Russian Federation are met,” the opposition Co-Chair of the Constitutional Committee, Hadi al-Bahra, said in a press statement on July 16.
The Russian President’s Special Envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, revealed in a mid-June press conference that his country proposed moving the headquarters of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s meeting from Geneva to Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Algiers or Nur-Sultan (Astana). He said these capitals are more neutral than Geneva, and that “for us as the Russian delegation, the accompanying of the Committee’s operation on the Geneva platform becomes increasingly onerous due to Switzerland’s unfriendly, and even hostile position towards Russia.”
Debate over location
On January 30, 2018, Moscow created a new political track based on the Asana talks, known alternatively as the Sochi Conference, Syrian People’s Conference or the National Dialogue. Syrian notables from prominent families, representatives of various sects, ethnicities and nationalities, and representatives of the Syrian opposition were invited to attend, Russia said at the time.
At the conclusion of the conference, the participants agreed upon 12 principles aimed at reaching a political settlement to the “Syrian crisis.” One of them was the formation of a constitutional committee by the parties to the conflict (the regime and opposition) to reform the constitution in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 issued on December 18, 2015, which calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.
After months of disagreement and discussion about the mechanism for the formation of the Constitutional Committee under the auspices of Moscow and the UN’s Syria Envoy Geir Pederson, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced on September 23, 2019 that the Syrian parties agreed to form a committee to prepare the constitution.
For the past three years, disagreement between the parties to the Constitutional Committee and its guarantors has been its prominent feature, and the body has not produced any outcomes. Today, with Russia accusing Switzerland of not being neutral, political and media sparring between the Syrian parties has returned.
Responding to Russia’s accusations, the Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Farhan Haq, said in a press briefing from UN headquarters in New York on July 18 that “we reaffirm the neutrality of Switzerland as a platform for much of the work the UN does.” He noted that “at the present stage, I do not have any alternative platform [to Geneva] to announce.”
Opposition Co-Chair of the Committee, Hadi al-Bahra, denounced what he described as “disrupting the work” of the Constitutional Committee in a press statement after the ninth round’s cancellation was announced. “It is unacceptable to disrupt its work for any reason, especially serving the demands of a foreign party,” he stressed.
Al-Bahra called on the UN Special Envoy for Syria, “in his capacity as a facilitator of the Committee’s work, and under his mandate in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), to submit a full report to the Security Council on the work of the Constitutional Committee up until now, identifying the obstacles it faces.”
He emphasized the need for all parties to commit to a regular schedule for the Committee’s meetings in Geneva, such that “the interval between each session is one week,” allowing it to accomplish its task under Resolution 2254, which stipulates “a timetable and process for drafting a new constitution.” Al-Bahra’s statement did not contain a clear official response from the Syrian opposition to Russia’s demands.
Syria Direct reached out to al-Bahra and Badr Jamous, the head of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, for an official statement, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Ahmed al-Asrawi, the Secretary-General of the Arab Democratic Socialist Union Party and a member of the small body of the Constitutional Committee for the Syrian Negotiations Commision, said “the Syrian opposition, represented by the Negotiations Commission of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, does not reject the Russian proposal.” He told Syria Direct it is “working to direct it to take advantage of every point that can push the political process forward. The main goal is a fundamental, comprehensive, democratic national change and political transition.”
The problem is not the venue where the Constitutional Committee’s sessions are held, he said, as “another location can be chosen among the official UN sites other than Geneva.” But before that, “the mandate granted to the international envoy [must be] reconsidered to grant him powers enabling him to intervene if necessary,” according to al-Asrawi. Pedersen being named a “facilitator of the Committee’s work and not a mediator is a gap, because it means he follows and does not administer.”
Al-Asrawi said the “procedural rules” of the Constitutional Committee should be reconsidered “so that it can accomplish its mission as soon as possible.” But that should coincide with “opening the rest of the other tracks of the political negotiating process,” foremost of which is “a transitional governing body with full powers that ensures a safe and neutral environment is provided to benefit from the outputs of the other axes, including the constitutional process and Constitutional Committee, as a key to the political process and not a substitute for it,” he said.
The end of the Constitutional Committee?
In its official statements, Moscow has not hinted at rejecting UN oversight of the political process in Syria. But its demands for “another, more neutral place could end in rejecting the UN cover in light of international military and political variables,” Anas Joudeh, the President of the Nation Building Movement, a Syrian civil social movement, said from his residence in Damascus.
But Joudeh did not rule out the possibility that Moscow could request a new track, separate from the UN. “This proposal was not far from the Tehran summit, which expresses the Russian, Iranian and Turkish desire,” he told Syria Direct. The three countries are the sponsors of the Astana peace process, which led to the Constitutional Committee’s formation. Presidents Vladimir Putin, Ebrahim Raisi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Tehran on July 19 to discuss a number of issues, including Syria. In the summit’s final statement, the leaders affirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
“The Turks obtained new gains from the Russian side, and thus they could accept the current Russian proposal or any new future proposal,” Joudeh said. With that, “the opposition will find themselves in a bad place, especially if the Turks pressure them to agree.”
Because Moscow and Ankara are the ones that created the Constitutional Committee, through the Astana process, “the option of closing the Constitutional Committee is linked to them agreeing to find a new path,” Joudeh said. He pointed out “there are indications of that,” citing “Erdoğan’s recent statements that we are waiting for the Syrian government to start with a political solution, which are unprecedented.”
On the other hand, while Geneva is only a venue, “Pederson cannot respond to the Russians” by moving the Committee’s work, especially as Moscow aims to “demonstrate that the Russian issue is in their hands, and are trying to remove the UN umbrella from the political process and limit it to Russia,” said Yahya al-Aridi, the former spokesperson for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission. This would “end the role of the UN envoy, since he is a UN envoy and not Russian,” he said.
Joudeh thought it unlikely that Russia’s demand would be met, “since it would be met with US rejection.” But that would lead to the end of the Committee, since Moscow, which raised the ceiling of its demands, “will not back down because it doesn’t have to.” He stressed that “the Constitutional Committee is not a track to a solution, but rather a track for discussing and converging views between the Syrian parties.”
Amer Mohammad, the Research Lead at Integrity Global, a research and consulting firm in London, said “it is too early to talk about closing the Constitutional Committee, especially since the Russian demands come out of animosity with the West, and can be dealt with by the Astana track guarantor countries, which have influence over all the delegations.
He suggested the Constitutional Committee would continue, because it “reflects Russia and Iran’s desire to create a framework to present a political settlement that would enable them to recoup what they spent in Syria.” Because these motives still exist, the countries are keen “not to terminate the Committee’s work,” he said. The regime’s participation in the Constitutional Committee “even if without serious intent for it to succeed, achieves a regime goal to delude the West, especially the United States, with positive political behavior to avoid sanctions.”
The complete termination of the Constitutional Committee’s work, then, “due to the the stance of the regime and Russia, would produce a reaction from the West, especially the US, towards the regime’s intransigence,” Mohammad said. That could lead to “an escalation of sanctions on the regime, if Washington wanted [that].”
What cards does the opposition have?
Although the opposition is a key party in the Constitutional Committee, it “does not have its own, independent decision, as in the case of the regime,” Mohammad said. Were the opposition’s decision in its own hands, “one of its options in response to what happened would be to try to take advantage of the regime’s obstruction of the Committee’s work by escalating politically against it.”
An independent opposition—not beholden to Turkey or other backers—“could demand Pedersen publicly hold the regime accountable in the Security Council report, and resort to the Council and the General Assembly.” This tactic would shift international focus from the “failing” Constitutional Committee, as Mohammad described it, to “holding the regime accountable and putting serious pressure on it to obtain real concessions.”
But this type of opposition escalation is unlikely. Mohammad expects “the opposition’s stance will align with what Turkey proposes, or what Ankar agrees to with Moscow and Pedersen.” The envoy is “expected to wait for Turkey, which is to a large extent sponsoring the opposition delegation, to offer a parallel proposal to the Russian proposals regarding the meetings’ venue,” he added. The Turkish president’s statements following the Tehran summit “suggest this direction, with Turkey intending to push to resume the Committee’s work.”
Joudeh agreed, saying “the Syrian opposition has no choice but to refuse to accept the Russian proposal.” But given shared interests between Ankara and Moscow, it may not be possible for the opposition to use this option, in his view.
The opposition must therefore “go back to unifying its stances and efforts, which focus on national democratic change, and reactivate the Negotiations Commission, as it is the internationally recognized representative,” al-Asrawi said. He stressed the need to “pay attention to it, and guide its role and position, and not allow attempts by some to circumvent its vision and decision.”
In turn, al-Aridi said “the opposition didn’t need this slap from Russia to decide not to participate in the Committee’s pointless sessions, on a path that has not moved forward.” He said the outcomes of the sessions “are not only zero, but have become part of a vicious, infernal scheme to rehabilitate the regime, step by step.”
The opposition should have said “we will not move without a timetable that finishes what is required of the Committee in a period of no more than three months,” al-Aridi added. He noted “the 2012 Constitution took no more than 45 days to prepare.”
Today, the opposition must “open the tracks contained within Resolution 2254, and stop working on the step-by-step principle,” al-Aridi added. In his view, the opposition has other cards left to play, most importantly “standing by Syrians, and expressing their rights in the proper way.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.