The Syrian Constitutional Committee has started operations in Geneva, as officially announced by Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Geir Otto Pedersen on October 30. The day before this long-awaited event, Geneva saw the arrival of the foreign ministers of the three member states of the Astana Process – Iran, Russia and Turkey – who came to make a statement in support of the Constitutional Committee. It was diplomats from these three nations who managed to solve a far from easy problem involved in coordinating the committee’s composition with the UN. Following their meeting, the ministers approved a document sealing the principle of non-interference in the committee’s operations by any country. This term refers to both the process of constitutional negotiations and the timeframes for finalizing the work on the constitution’s text that should be approved by consensus.
Can this be achieved though? There are doubts arising from the fact that possibly not a single committee member can feel free from political, corporate or even clan interests. In addition to this, it proved impossible to honor the original agreement that the government, the opposition and the civil society should be equally represented on the committee. The fight for pro-government members’ prevalence among the 50-man civil society “third” drew out the talks on the committee’s composition by another several months and was crowned with the Syrian government’s victory. The drafting of Syria’s new constitution is hampered by this and several other factors, including the pressure brought to bear on the UN Special Envoy by a “small group” of US and UK clients, foreign military presence, both legitimate and otherwise, and geographical changes affecting the alignment of forces in Syria, which emerged right ahead of the day, when the committee was supposed to start its work. The Turkish operation to create a buffer zone along the entire Syrian-Turkish border created a new reality for the Constitutional Committee.
A short while ago, opponents of the Syrian opposition described it as a “hotel-based opposition” kept by the Western and Middle East sponsors and representative of no one in Syria. Now Turkey has formed the Syrian National Army and occupied a certain territory, where Syrian refugees – future voters – are being relocated from Turkey. Actually, an alternative administrative entity has been established, which enables the opposition to invoke the very fact of its existence and claim that it represents millions of Syrians. It is arguable whether this is so or not, but the opposition has been given a strong argument in its favor.
This partly clarifies the answer to the question about the likelihood of outside interference in the Constitutional Committee’s proceedings. Turkey has already influenced them and will continue to do so by its moves in northern Syria. It is also clear that the Western states, primarily the US and the UK, will continue to manipulate the committee members who enjoyed their support even previously and will urge the committee to produce the text before the 2021 presidential election in Syria. This is at variance with the Astana guarantor countries’ intention to control what they believe is excessive outside interference in the intra-Syrian dialogue and will create additional tension both inside and around the committee. Despite President Trump’s repeated announcements of American withdrawal from Syria, the US forces have merely redeployed, focusing on the most important areas with key communications and oil and gas fields. Thus, the United States is still able to play the Kurdish card, including by backing the Kurdish partisan demands to send their representatives to the Constitutional Committee. Defending the Syrian Kurdish community’s interests as they are understood by the leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is also introducing tension into the atmosphere surrounding the committee. A cultural and administrative autonomy for the Kurds in certain Syrian areas and power decentralization at the local level would have been a fair solution for Syria, but after eight years of the crisis and given a conflict between the Kurds and the Arabs in northern Syria, these demands are unacceptable for both the Syrian government and other ethnic and religious groups within the Syrian society.
The above mentioned factors will undoubtedly be used by the government members of the committee as a pretext for weakening their opponents.
One feels certain optimism inspired by the committee starting its work by adopting the rules of procedure. Their drafting and coordination with all the stakeholders had also taken much time and effort on the part of the Special Envoy. At this stage, representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition – and only these two forces are present in the committee with no one having the illusion that there is a third force, civil society – have reaffirmed their commitment to the principles and rules of procedure. But squabbles began between the participants on the second day of the meeting, which is anything but conducive to creating a constructive atmosphere at the Palace of Nations. One would like to believe that most of the members of the Syrian committee have their minds fixed on dialogue that eventually should produce a new constitution. Simultaneously it must be realized that both the opposition and the government have different views when it comes to the future of Syria and accordingly differ on the matter concerning the new fundamental law.
All that is left is to wish the Special Envoy and his staff to be patient and to remain firm in their uphill struggle to provide favorable conditions for the operations of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.