Four rounds of Syria’s Constitutional Committee stand still on a narrow common ground
Ali Darwish | Nour al-Deen Ramadan
The members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC)—composed of three delegations, namely: the opposition, the Syrian regime, and civil society—have left their last meeting in the Swiss city-state of Geneva without discussing or presenting the main goal of the SCC formation; establishing Syria’s new constitution in accordance with UN Resolution 2254. UN Resolution 2254 stipulates the formation of a transitional governing body and conduct of new elections.
Four rounds of the Syrian constitutional talks have been held since 30 October 2019, during which the delegation of the Syrian regime was accused of obstructing the SCC’s work. Adding to that, there is no precise time frame for the committee’s work.
As a result of the SCC’s talks’ prolongation, the SCC has lost the time factor as the presidential elections approach; the elections will be held in the summer of next year. The SCC was counting on elections as a path for a political transition in Syria.
This recalls a statement made by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, before the Syrian parliament on 12 August, that the political transition process, which leads to al-Assad’s exit from power, “will only take place in their dreams.”
In a clear affirmation, al-Assad rejects any political initiatives and negotiations that occur outside his control or in which he does not have the capacity to control their outcomes, describing the initiatives as “political nonsense. ”
What is the future of the SCC as the 2021 elections approach?
Raghda Zaidan, a member of the SCC small body, emanating from the civil society list, told Enab Baladi, “ Whether the 2021 elections are held or not, this does affect us, meaning that if the SCC successfully completes its work of establishing the new constitution, the new constitution will have transitional articles calling for new elections and a strategy for upholding and implementing this constitution, so that it becomes effective.”
Zaidan added that “the 2021 elections are no different from the 2014 elections, which were held under the supervision of the Syrian regime amid international and international skepticism.
Zaidan highlighted that if the presidential elections are held on schedule, this does not mean that the constitutional process is useless or will stop because the constitution, if completed whether before or after the elections, will contain articles about a transitional process, insofar as they are transitional measures to implement this constitution so that it becomes effective and new elections are called.
Zaidan, in a previous interview with Enab Baladi, believes that the SCC, in its current position, cannot implement any constitution before the next elections due to the difficult procedures for holding safe-face-to-face meetings of the SCC in light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Yahya Aridi, the spokesperson of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), told Enab Baladi that the SCC is of no value if it does not end its meetings before the next elections because the international resolution says that there is only a political decision according to the “Geneva” statement and resolution 2254.”
Mais Kreidi, a member of the SCC’s civil society delegation coming from Damascus, denied that the SCC work is linked to the 2021 elections.
Kreidi said, “The eligibility and work of the SCC are not associated with the elections. These issues are placed within the legislative reality of Syria and within the context of Syrian institutions and work entitlements. The committee’s work is never related to all of these because the committee has no timeline.”
Al-Assad pulls himself out of the circle
The head of the Syrian regime has undermined the work of the SCC twice. In the first time, he torpedoed the work of the SCC days before the second round in November 2019 and disavowed it by denying that its work was related to the elections in Syria.
Al-Assad stated in an interview with Russia 24 TV and Russia Sevodnia Agency on 15 November 2019, “The Constitutional Committee has nothing to do with the elections; its job is limited to the formation of the Syrian constitution. However, if they think that they will return to the era of the mandate, I will tell them, this will happen only in your dreams.”
The same sentence was used by al-Assad in his speech before the Parliament members on 12 August, before the third round of the committee’s meetings, and he described “political initiatives” as having turned into “political Mumbo-jumbo, thanks to the United States of America, its agent Turkey, and their representatives in the dialogue.”
He added, “The use of political initiatives aims to make us fall into traps set to achieve what they have failed through terrorism, and this will only be in their dreams. However, we will go with the flow in implementing the popular proverb, “Follow the liar to the front door .”
He also described the discussion of any future political process as “noise and dust raised from time to time that did not carry with it any significant change,” indicating that any future developments will be spoken with all transparency so that the people know all the details.
Al-Assad described the SCC’s talks in Geneva as a “political game,” and that it is not what most Syrian people focus on, in an interview conducted by Russia’s Sputnik news agency on 8 October.
The Syrian people, according to al-Assad, do not think about the new constitution. None of the Syrian people is even talking about it. In fact, the Syrian people are concerned with the reforms that should be implemented and the policies that need to be changed to ensure that their needs are met.
The agreement to form the SCC came against the wishes of the head of the Syrian regime when the SCC was first presented at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress hosted by the Russian Federation (RF) in the Black sea resort of Sochi in November 2018.
It was agreed at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress to form a constitutional committee consisting of the Assad regime’s delegation and a wide-represented opposition delegation to draft a constitutional reform as a contribution to the political settlement under the UN auspices in accordance with Security Council Resolution No. 2254.
Different perspectives in each round
The Syrian regime’s delegation refused to discuss or engage in the formation of Syria’s new constitution. The Syrian regime focused in the past four rounds on other issues, namely the “terrorism,” national sovereignty, economic sanctions, refugee issues, extremism, and conspiracy. The Assad regime’s delegation also highlighted that the SCC’s talks would not have been held in Geneva without the efforts of “the Syrian Arab Army.”
Abdul Wahab Asi, a political researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, tweeted that the Syrian regime does not want to make any concessions leading to a fundamental change in the constitution, then the ruling. The Assad regime is counting on buying some time and flooding the discussions with details as long as the opposition is consistently adhering to these futile discussions.
Since the SCC’s second round, the Syrian regime has evaded discussion of constitutional issues and put forward what it called “national principles” as a precondition for entering into talks, which the delegations of the Syrian opposition and civil society accepted. For the third round, there was no form of understanding on the agenda. Thus, the fourth round of the SCC talks has been carried out without committing to an agenda, according to researcher Abdul Wahab Asi.
Mias Kreidi told Enab Baladi that political views and political points scored between the opposing parties are still present, with the lack of rationality to achieve the Syrian approach and consensus, considering that the problem of the Syrian opposition is that “every opposition spawns opposition, and every coalition forges alliances.”
However, Dr. Raghda Zaidan suggested that there would be a benefit, given the recent SCC talks and incidents that took place during the fourth round, although there is a waste of time.
The benefit is that each party presented national principles from its point of view; the three delegations presented what they have. Zaidan believes that everything introduced in the previous rounds is from the core of the constitution regarding issues of “terrorism” and national unity.
In fact, all these issues demonstrate that the committee has already entered into the discussion of the constitution and the constitutional contents, with the hope of entering into deeper discussions in the coming rounds and providing good drafting or real constitutional drafting away from statements or political positions.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said during a press conference at the end of the fourth round, on 4 December, that it is possible to bring the views between the parties closer. He highlighted that “The Committee’s mandate is to prepare and draft for constitutional reform and our hope that with the next few rounds of discussions it will be possible to start that drafting process. That will also require a lot of work; it will be challenging, and it may not happen as quickly as we could hope, but as I said, after listening to the three different delegations this week, I do still believe that there are many areas, with the right political will.”
Pedersen pointed to the need for political will and willingness to compromise and reach consensual solutions because the SCC is established with a voting threshold of 75 percent. In other words, one side cannot dictate to the others what requires to happen, explaining that the reasons that impede progress are the lack of trust and confidence among the Syrian parties and the international parties, and the lack of will and readiness to take real steps that can build trust between the parties.
What does the constitutional committee need?
In practice, the SCC needs a Russian harmony between tactics and strategies, Yahia al-Aridi, the SNC spokesperson, said in a previous interview with Enab Baladi. This is due to the fact the Russians are complying with the Syrian regime’s tactics to deal with the SCC, including procrastination and wasting time.
Nonetheless, day after day, the Russians are proving an outright failure because they did not get any political gains, despite their military advances, their constant lies, and the protection of the Syrian regime’s crimes in the Security Council, as he put it.
The SCC needs initially to find a political solution with the support of the international will. It has to exert pressure on the Syrian regime to engage in this process seriously, according to Raghda Zaidan, the SCC member. Therefore, the SCC requires popular support, and this popular support must be aware of what it needs from the future constitution.
ٌReturn of refugees is discussed amid absence of official media coverage
At the end of the third round of the SCC, on 29 August, the Syrian regime’s delegation set an agenda entitled “Basic National Principles” to be discussed. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) stated that these principles include national identity and cultural diversity, as two basic principles that can be built upon in the subsequent stages of the committee’s work.
During its interventions, “the national delegation” affirmed that it is keen to continue working openly in other rounds to reach consensus on these two principles and other national principles that are a common ground for the Constitutional Committee to carry out its tasks. However, this did not happen, and the Syrian regime’s delegation did not discuss these principles that it was discussing previously.
Unlike the past three rounds, the Syrian regime’s delegation in this round raised the humanitarian file’s flag and the return of Syrian refugees instead of constantly talking about “national principles” in previous rounds.
The talk about the humanitarian file comes after a conference organized by the Syrian regime in Damascus with Russian support, which failed to win Western states’ acceptance despite the Syrian regime and Russia’s efforts to make it a success. This talk also took place months before the Syrian presidential elections.
The official Syrian media outlets, including SANA, did not shed light on the SCC meetings. The number of press materials about the SCC members’ meetings did not exceed the number of fingers of one hand.
This small number of press materials reflects the lack of the Syrian regime’s official interest in the event. On the contrary, for example, the Russia-backed conference on refugee returns held in Damascus received wide media coverage, approximately three times higher than the Constitutional Committee’s press materials, as monitored by Enab Baladi.
Journalist Mahmoud Othman explained to Enab Baladi that the absence of an international political will, and the active role of the US, the Security Council, the United Nations, and the influential countries in the Syrian arena prompted the regime’s delegation to procrastinate, evade responsibility, and play on the factor of time. Since the beginning of “Geneva,” the Syrian regime tried to empty any process of its content.
Othman pointed out that the Syrian regime raised the flag of the humanitarian file and the return of refugees only to show its so-called moral superiority because talking about refugees’ return at this inadequate time is very ironic; people inside Syria are already experiencing very deteriorating living conditions. Othman attributed the reason for the Syrian regime’s active engagement in the international conference to the Syrian regime’s way of thinking. The regime believes that it is safe from any real punishment, as it is protected by Russian-Chinese “Veto.”
Different labels of delegations
The Syrian regime’s media outlets have changed the labels of its delegation to Geneva for the SCC four times since the launching of the first round of the SCC’s work.
The first name used by the Syrian state media is “the delegation of the Syrian government.” Bashar al-Assad, the President of the Syrian regime, later described it as “the delegation representing the Syrian government’s view.”
Then, pro-government Syrian media outlets called the Syrian regime’s delegation “the Syrian government-supported delegation.” The Syrian government media outlets also called the opposition delegation a new name, the “Turkish-backed delegation,” during the second round of the SCC.
After that, Syria’s state media settled on the name “the national delegation” for the Syrian regime’s delegation with the start of the third round.
This label “national delegation,” during the start of the third round, provoked the opposition’s delegation, as it expresses itself that it does not represent the Syrian government and has nothing to do with it.
The co-chair of the Syrian opposition delegation, Hadi al-Bahra, objected to the name and requested the Assad regime’s delegation adhere to the label agreed with the UN upon establishing the SCC.
Brief of four rounds of the SCC meetings
The SCC’s first round began on 30 October 2019, with international welcome and support, after it suffered prolonged labor, before its birth with the UN’s efforts. The UN appointed two envoys for this mission: the first, Staffan de Mistura, who stepped down in October 2018 and handed the task to his successor, Geir Pedersen.
The round ended on 8 November 2019 and lasted for ten days.
On 4 November, the SCC’s small body started its work and established the constitutional contents.
The Head of the Syrian regime delegation, Ahmad al-Kuzbari, avoided directly accusing the Syrian opposition delegation of treason. Yet, he confirmed the Syrian regime’s narrative that its war against “terrorism” continues, considering that without the army’s “sacrifices,” the committee’s talks would not have occurred.
Meanwhile, the co-chair of the opposition delegation, Hadi al-Bahra, spoke about the file of the detainees, and the beginning of work to draft a constitution not based on sectarianism, and that the UN resolution “2254” will be implemented according to a specific timetable and supports the conduct of fair elections under the supervision of the United Nations.
Coinciding with the start of the first round, the president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, denied that the SCC’s work had anything to do with Syria’s elections and regarded that “its task is limited only to drafting the constitution.”
In the second round of the Syrian constitutional talks, which lasted from 25 to 29 November 2019, no discussions were held between the three delegations within the SCC small body due to the disagreement over the agenda.
The delegation designated by the Syrian government refused to engage in the discussion of the constitution’s articles, according to the agenda presented by the opposition delegation.
The Syrian regime’s delegation proposed an agenda discussing “the national pillars of concern to the Syrian people” and called for condemning foreign interference, especially the Turkish one, and lifting the siege of Syria. The delegation also considered every person who has taken up arms against the state as a “terrorist.”
None of the delegates entered the meeting rooms; the regime’s delegation went shopping, while the opposition delegation stayed within the headquarters earmarked for the SCC talks.
Prior to the third round, al-Assad rejected any political process that does not accord to his viewpoint or is not a party.
The third round of the Syrian constitution talks was held on 24 August, nine months after the second round, and ended on the 29th of the same month. It showed the profound differences between the Syrian regime and the opposition’s delegations, with several common points that can be built upon in the future, according to Pederson.
The regime’s delegation called itself the “national delegation” and said it does not represent the government. In return, al-Bahra requested that the regime’s delegation abide by the designations agreed with the UN upon establishing the Constitutional Committee.
The round was halted after the Swiss authorities confirmed that four SCC small body members from Damascus tested positive for COVID-19 infection.
Following the resumption of the Syrian constitutional talks, a dispute arose over the discussion of principles, as the regime’s delegation insisted on discussing the existence of “separatist entities” in Syria. In contrast, the opposition delegation insisted that Syria’s sovereignty, unity, and territorial independence are the first to be discussed.
The civil society delegation suggested that the Syrian constitutional talks must be about the will to coexist.
The fourth round of the SCC started on 30 November and ended on 4 December.
All Syrian delegates have agreed on an agenda for the next meeting. Thus, the next meeting will be held on 25 January 2021, discussing the Constitutional principles or basic principles of the Constitution.
The regime’s delegation raised the issues of “terrorism, extremism, the global conspiracy against Syria, and return of Syrian refugees.”
The delegation made a distinction between a refugee and an immigrant about returning to Syria. Members of the Syrian regime’s delegation accused some Syrian refugees of “promoting or facilitating solemnization of prostitution, and child marriage to afford the cost of living.” The delegation also said that Syrian refugees are being exploited by the host countries’ organ traffickers.”
Besides, it suggested eight principles, namely “patriotism,” and narratives of “national identity” and “the separatist project.”
On the other hand, the opposition delegation presented the principles of state sovereignty, separation of powers, equal citizenship, and constitutional and national principles, such as national sovereignty and the importance of the constitution, and a new social pact that regulates the relationship between the state and the Syrian people. The delegation spoke about the Syrian refugees’ problem in Lebanon and their numbers and the detainees held in the Syrian regime’s detention facilities and prisons.
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