Syrian constitutional reform talks reach deadlock in Geneva

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen meeting with members of the Third Central Committee before the beginning of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s talks in Geneva - 17 October 2021 (Violin Martin)

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen meeting with members of the Third Central Committee before the beginning of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s talks in Geneva - 17 October 2021 (Violin Martin)


Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

The sixth round of Syria’s Constitutional Committee (SCC)’s talks has ended with a “big disappointment,” the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said, contrary to the optimistic statements that preceded the launch of the talks.  

The UN-led SCC talks began on 18 October, after a nine-month hiatus, bringing together delegations of the Syrian regime, the opposition, and the civil society.

During the SCC sessions, held between 18 and 22 October, several constitutional principles were put forward by the participating parties. The regime’s delegation brought up the national sovereignty principle on the first day. On the second day, the opposition raised the principle of the army, security, armed forces, and intelligence services. The civil society delegation presented the principle of the rule of law, while the principle of combating terrorism and extremism was discussed on the fourth day.

The fifth day of the SCC meetings was dedicated to discussing the four principles mentioned in the delegations’ submitted papers. 

The three delegations’ representatives were to submit shared papers based on understandings or agreements on the papers put forward during the discussions. 

Representatives of the opposition-led Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) presented four papers based on previous discussion sessions, while the civil society delegation submitted a single paper. On the other hand, the regime’s delegation presented no papers, insisting that it sees no compatibility with the submitted papers.

Mutual accusations

Ahmad al-Kuzbari, the head of the regime’s delegation, said in a press statement, “Our delegation emphasizes its desire to continue and engage positively in the SCC’s political process.”

Al-Kuzbari blamed the opposition side for the failed discussions and refused to answer journalists’ questions. 

Meanwhile, the head of the opposition’s delegation, Hadi al-Bahra, said that the regime’s delegation did not submit any consensus paper and insisted that presented papers by the opposition and civil society delegations contain nothing to agree on.

Al-Bahra added, “The papers put forward by the opposition side contained some proposals mentioned before by the regime’s delegation, as we thought they would serve as a base for positive discussions.  

After the end of the fifth day of talks, Pedersen stated, “Three of the five days of talks had gone well but did not end well.”

“We did not achieve what we hoped to achieve. I think we lacked a proper understanding of how to move this process forward. So, in the end, it was the government delegation that decided not to present any new text,” Pedersen said.

“The regime is not serious about the political process”

“It is clear that the regime’s delegation has not yet made the decision to seriously engage and commit itself to the political process and still thinks it can evade the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 by adopting tactics known to all,” al-Bahra told Enab Baladi.

According to al-Bahra, the regime thought that its fake positivity might succeed in disguising its negative attitudes towards the whole negotiation process, but it was mistaken. All observers of the SCC work, including the UN team or international envoys to Geneva who attended the meetings, could detect the regime’s non-cooperative attitude. 

Member of the SCC’s civil society delegation, Elaf Yassin, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s delegation refused to include any observations on its papers, which, according to Yassin, were more like political statements than constitutional principles. 

She added that the regime’s delegation did not submit any paper and said its papers were against modification.

The regime’s delegation told the other two parties, “You can make adjustments to your papers if you want,” according to Yassin.  

The head of the opposition delegation to Syria’s Constitutional Committee (SCC)’s talks, Hadi al-Bahra (the United Nations)

The head of the opposition delegation to Syria’s Constitutional Committee (SCC)’s talks, Hadi al-Bahra (the United Nations)

A deadlock

Political and academic researcher and member of the SCC’s civil society delegation, Samira Moubayed, told Enab Baladi that the sixth round of talks had reached a deadlock, despite determining a methodology for the SCC’s work before its meetings. 

This impasse was due to the acute polarization between the delegations of the regime and the opposition, which impeded the possibility of reaching a consensus on principles laid down for discussion.

According to Moubayed, the regime’s delegation put forward perceptions based on the continuity of its rejection of the Syrian uprising and demands. The regime’s submitted papers reflected its indifferent attitude towards serious work for political and constitutional changes. 

For Moubayed, the opposition’s side had made substantial concessions, most notably accepting the process of constitutional reform rather than drafting a new Syrian constitution in an effort to reach a political compromise with the regime. However, the opposition delegation did not get what it sought after, despite making concessions.

The failure to reach consensus on constitutional drafting indicates that the constitutional dialogue under this mechanism had reached an impasse, Moubayed said.

Some members of the Syrian civil society delegation warned that the continuation of the regime and opposition delegations’ domination over negotiations would not lead to any solutions in the interests of Syrians. 

They added, the empowerment of Syrian independent voices and technocrats is essential to advance political transition away from the convulsion and tightening of the ideological currents that have shaped the political scene in Syria over the past decades. These voices have been annihilated in any negotiations or dialogues in Syria.

Optimism kills

Hadi al-Bahra, the opposition delegation’s head, was optimistic about the conduct of the political process during the first days of the SCC’s meetings, along with Pedersen. He said at the first session that he hoped the rest of the sessions would be held with the same positivity and mechanism to produce useful results as fast as possible.

Al-Bahra told Enab Baladi that the optimistic statements expressed in the SCC’s first and second days of talks were because of the consensus and commitment shown by all Syrian parties to implement the UN work methodology. 

The SCC’s parties presented the titles of constitutional principles they wanted to discuss before arriving in Geneva, according to al-Bahra.

He added, the regime’s delegation submitted its proposed constitutional drafting to Pedersen’s office before the meetings’ launch. The regime’s proposed provisions were discussed in the first four days’ meetings. On the fifth day, where the three parties were supposed to reach a consensus, the regime’s delegation revealed its real intentions, refusing all proposals the opposition made in the context of working mechanisms to achieve a political compromise. 

The head of the Syrian regime’s delegation to Syria’s Constitutional Committee (SCC), Ahmad al-Kuzbari (the United Nations)

The head of the Syrian regime’s delegation to Syria’s Constitutional Committee (SCC), Ahmad al-Kuzbari (the United Nations)

No date in sight for the next round of talks

Pedersen did not set a date for the Constitutional Committee’s next round of meetings, while al-Bahra announced that the new talks would start on 1 November. As for al-Kuzbari, he said that the next round would be initiated at the end of November or early December.

Al-Bahra said that the conflicting statements regarding the next round’s date resulted from the fifth day’s outcomes when the SCC talks reached an impasse.

“We decided that the confirmation of the upcoming round’s date would depend on the development of specific working mechanisms to avoid what happened on the last day of the sixth round’s meetings and reach consensus on proposed constitutional drafting for the new constitution’s fundamental principles,” al-Bahra said.

Russia’s position on the political process in Syria

The stumbling of the SCC’s discussions is due mainly to the Syrian regime’s “lack of seriousness on drafting constitutional principles and insistence on wasting time without causing the collapse of talks, as Russia encourages the SCC’s track of talks,” political and military researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Abdul Wahab Assi, told Enab Baladi

Russia expressed cautious optimism on the sidelines of the first meeting of the SCC’s sixth round of talks, Assi said. As for Pedersen, he refrained from commenting until the end of the sixth round’s meetings, which he described as “disappointing” in the same way he described the fifth round during a briefing to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 29 January.

According to Assi, Russia’s cautious optimism could be attributed to its view of the SCC’s sixth round of discussions as a new test for expanding cooperation with the United States (US) in Syria. Russia keeps sending assurances to the US that it will continue moving Syria’s political process forward.

Setting a new date for the SCC’s seventh round of meetings next November allows Russia more time to continue its alleged support of the political process in Syria, when in fact it endeavors to keep any constitutional reform a mere drafting modification to the 2012 Syrian Constitution. Russia’s position is similar to that of the regime and Iran and contradicts the Syrian opposition’s stand calling for drafting a new constitution.     

There are no indications that the US and the European Union (EU) have accepted Russia’s perception of constitutional reform in Syria to move beyond political transition and establish a national unity government.

The use of military operations as pretext to freeze the political process

Russia said that the bomb attack on a military bus under Jisr al-Rais bridge in central Damascus on the third day of the SCC’s meetings aimed to disrupt the political process discussions between the parties in Geneva.

The attack resulted in 14 deaths and two injuries, according to Syrian state media. 

The Russia Today (RT) TV channel cited Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, saying, “There were certain concerns last Wednesday, most likely following the terrorist attack in Damascus.” 

Lavrentyev added, “On Wednesday, the SCC’s parties exchanged accusations, but, thanks to the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, and his Office, this negativity was eliminated, and the SCC resumed its constructive track of talks on Thursday.”   

Lavrentyev confirmed that “the positions of the SCC’s parties remain contradictory on many issues.”

An armed group calling itself the Qasioun Brigades claimed responsibility for the bomb attack that targeted a military bus on the morning of 20 October in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The group, surrounded by doubts about being real or fictitious, released a statement on Telegram saying “the bombs were attached under the bus,” adding that the attack comes in retaliation for “massacres committed against our people in the liberated north.”

On 20 October, the Russia-backed Syrian forces intensified shelling on residential neighborhoods in Ariha city in Idlib countryside. The bombardment led to the killing of 11 civilians, including four schoolchildren and a woman, and injured 20 persons, some in critical condition, as announced by the Syria Civil Defense (SCD). 

Al-Bahra told Enab Baladi that the bombing of civilians in Idlib is a “heinous crime,” adding that “the targeting of our people in Ariha and the martyrdom of several people coincided with the bomb incident in Damascus.” 

Al-Bahra added, “The Syrian people are victimized by three evil powers (Authoritarianism, corruption, and terrorism), which seek to prolong war and tragedy and thrive on the war economy.” 

Al-Bahra said that the committee’s first day of meetings was opened by condemning war crimes and targeting innocent civilians that increase Syrians’ sufferings. Emphasis was also placed on the importance of completing the committee’s work as it was mandated as soon as possible. 

Assi, on the other hand, said that the explosion in Damascus and the shelling on Ariha are not necessarily linked to the failure of the SCC talks, as the Syrian regime does not miss any opportunity to take advantage of the events that are taking place or those it created to employ them either in the SCC talks or elsewhere. 

The regime would employ the shelling and explosion incidents within the SCC’s discussions on terrorism, Assi added.  

Is there any point in continuing the Constitutional Committee’s work?

The Director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), Mohammad al-Abdullah, explained in a previous talk to Enab Baladi that constitutional amendments or reforms the SCC keeps talking about will not change anything on the ground in Syria. He added that the main problem does not lie within the text of the constitution but in enforcing and interpreting the constitution.

Al-Abdullah added, “It is unfortunate that Syria’s entire political process and peace talks sponsored by the UN and the international community are reduced merely to talks to amend the constitution.” The Syrian Constitution is “not bad,” but it does include some articles that need to be amended, given that the Syrian Constitution draws primarily from the French Constitution.

According to al-Abdullah, the opposition’s weakness is that it did not take the decision to withdraw from the SCC talks at an appropriate time. 

The opposition would have been in a stronger position if it had objected or taken that decision to withdraw from the SCC’s talks earlier, rather than making concessions to the Syrian regime. The opposition agreed to trim the scope of the political process and the Geneva II peace talks on Syria from the beginning of its work. It first agreed to the implementation of UN Resolution 2254, then to Staffan de Mistura’s Four Baskets plan, and finally to the SCC talks. 

Al-Abdullah believes that the opposition is experiencing “great political pressure” on the ground in Syria. This is evident when it has to participate in negotiations that bring it together with the regime. Moreover, the opposition cannot withdraw from those negotiations due to the military tide on the ground tilting in favor of the regime. This is why the opposition is considered the weakest link forced to negotiate.

Researcher at the Middle East Institute, Charles Lester, wrote, “The fact that it took two years for Syria’s Constitutional Committee to agree to begin its real work illustrates the enormous challenge the UN faces when confronted with minimal Western interest or investment in Syria diplomacy.”

“For optimists — of which, there are few working on Syria these days — this recent step forward was vital, in that it keeps any semblance of a UN process alive, leaving a door ajar for a truly meaningful diplomatic effort if or when the West eventually decides that would be worth it,” Lester said.

He added, “For the many pessimists though, the painfully slow progress so far is merely evidence that Syria’s regime is keeping Syria diplomacy on life support for a strategic purpose: to delay until such time as diplomacy no longer has value.”

According to Lester, “the US and Europe remain visibly detached from any real Syria diplomacy, some of Syria’s neighbors in the immediate region are taking matters into their own hands. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are the most visible actors pursuing efforts to engage with the Syrian regime.”

“Bashar al-Assad’s normalization has become a virtually irreversible reality. After the World Health Organization (WHO) elected Syria to its Executive Board in May 2021 and Interpol re-admitted it to its communications network in October, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi visited Damascus over the weekend and announced UNHCR efforts to ‘coordinate’ and ‘cooperate’ with the regime to facilitate the return of refugees,” Lester said.

“The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria labeled the country unsafe for refugee return only a month ago appears to have been remarkably missed, or ignored, by the international community’s most important figure on refugee policy,” Lester added.

He said, “These and other developments are a damning indictment of the so-called ‘international community’ and its claimed dedication to rules, norms, justice, and human rights.

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