A proposal for new Saudi role in Syria via the gate of the Constitutional Committee

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad during his meeting with UN envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen - March 2024 (Foreign Ministry/Facebook)

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad during his meeting with UN envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen - March 2024 (Foreign Ministry/Facebook)

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Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

Russia and the Syrian regime continue to stall and refuse to hold sessions of the Constitutional Committee tasked with creating a new constitution for Syria, as long as the city of Geneva, Switzerland is the venue for the sessions.

It seems that the visit carried out last week to Damascus by the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, and his meeting during it with the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, was not fruitful, at least from the briefing Pedersen gave later in front of the Security Council after the visit, which seemed to lack any new developments at first glance, especially with his statement that all developments are heading in the wrong direction in Syria, in terms of security, humanitarian issues, human rights, economics, and politics.

However, a leaked proposal may mean progress in the work of the committee, as Al-Watan newspaper, close to the Syrian regime, reported sources as saying that Pedersen proposed Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, as a suggested place to hold the meetings.

The newspaper, which described its source as “a diplomat in Damascus” preferring not to disclose his name, said that Riyadh comes as an option after Moscow’s refusal to hold the committee’s meetings in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and its suggestion of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, which was rejected by Washington.

Choosing Riyadh, even as a temporary location, comes after the refusal to hold sessions in Baghdad, Tehran, and Nairobi, which reflects a different role that Saudi Arabia may play in the Syrian file, after years of siding with the Syrian opposition before deciding in 2023 to change course and open up to the regime and move towards the resumption of diplomatic relations with it.

What does the opposition think?

Statements by the opposition in the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) emphasized that what is more important than the venue of the sessions is the content of the discussions and the extent of progress being made in the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC). However, this also does not mean choosing cities that represent the regime or are affiliated with it, like Baghdad or Tehran. At the same time, Geneva remains the essential place for convening the sessions, and current circumstances push for choosing an alternative location, but it remains a temporary one.

Moscow refuses to hold the sessions in Geneva, Switzerland, on the grounds that Switzerland is not neutral regarding its war in Ukraine.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s openness to the Syrian regime for almost a year, holding public meetings with it, inviting it to Riyadh, and the return of diplomatic relations, the Syrian opposition has not taken a hardline stance on this, naturally.

Tarek al-Kurdi, a member of the mini-committee (Constitution Drafting Committee) and a lawyer, told Enab Baladi that proposing Riyadh as a venue for the Constitutional Committee is not new, especially since Riyadh had a direct role in forming the negotiation body, and it still houses its headquarters in the Saudi capital.

According to al-Kurdi, Saudi Arabia can play a “positive” role in the coming period by possessing good relations with various political parties concerned with the Syrian issue, from Washington to Moscow, Tehran, as well as the Syrian regime, in addition to the opposition.

Al-Kurdi pointed out, in his talk to Enab Baladi, that transferring the activities of the Constitutional Committee outside Geneva is a temporary move until the reasons that led to this transfer are no longer present.

On the other hand, the opposition is more concerned with the content of the committee’s work than with the place of convening in terms of the necessity for the special UN envoy to complete the working methodology within the committee that prevents any party from disrupting its work and obstructing its access to completing its mandate in writing a new constitution for Syria, according to his opinion.

Retired Saudi General and researcher in strategic and security studies Abdullah bin Ghanem al-Qahtani sees that the meeting of the Constitutional Committee in Riyadh is “positive” for two points; the first is due to Saudi Arabia’s openness and its building of relations with the Damascus government, and it has its relations with the opposition as well.

The second thing is that it already has a history of dealing with both sides and bringing them together, which will be fruitful if successful.

In light of Saudi Arabia’s new relations with Iran, which is already present in Syria, holding the committee in Riyadh is a good thing, but so far, there has been no official approval by Saudi Arabia in this regard or any official announcement.

No official position has been issued by the Saudi government or an announcement of approval to host the work of the Constitutional Committee and its meetings, and it is supposed to have been informed of the Syrian opposition’s approval and desire in this matter, according to statements from the head of the Negotiation Commission, Badr Jamous.

Jamous said in statements to the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, on March 19, that he informed the Saudi side of the opposition’s desire, but he did not reveal either the approval or the lack thereof.

According to al-Qahtani, Saudi Arabia is capable of managing this file, especially with its good international relations and having played similar roles in other files.

Why would Riyadh agree?

Practically, it is not the first time Riyadh might host political negotiations between internal rivals in the region, as it announced the Taif Agreement in 1990, which ended the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975, as well as the Mecca Agreement in 2008, between the Palestinian movements “Fatah” and “Hamas.”

But the difference between those meetings, their circumstances, their participants, and the Syrian situation is that Riyadh had, in fact, a clear and tough position on the Syrian regime for many years, since 2011, before the directions changed and Saudi Arabia announced the return of diplomatic relations with Iran, the main ally of the Syrian regime, in March 2023.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s slight distancing in the past years from the work of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the largest bodies of the Syrian opposition, and handing over the file almost completely to the Turkish side, its relations with the opposing Negotiation Commission did not end, especially as it was formed in Riyadh.

According to al-Qahtani, if Saudi Arabia agrees to host the committee’s work, it will also be taking its interests into account, whether those are related to its domestic vision (Vision 2030) or foreign policies concerning the region.

He believes that Saudi Arabia has an interest in Syria being a stable country that plays its role, and that Syria becomes a sovereign nation on its soil through a comprehensive national consensus. This matter is not only in the interest of Syrians but also the entire Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, and Syria will also benefit from Saudi Vision 2030, especially since the latter is interested in the stability of the entire region, including Iraq as well.

He added, in his talk to Enab Baladi, that if there is no realization by all parties of this matter, then there is a problem, and if they do not realize that all Syrian sides will be on the losing end, as Syria needs the return of the Arabs to it to help it rise again, and it needs a massive project for reconstruction which will not happen without internal consensus.

The UN envoy, Geir Pedersen, called for the ninth round of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva, which the Negotiation Commission agreed to, but the Syrian regime did not respond, noting ongoing contacts in this regard, and openness to any alternative location that would have the consensus of both sides and the host party, as Pedersen said in his briefing before the Security Council.

In the event of failure to agree on an alternative location, Pedersen will continue to work to hold the session in Geneva, within a process led and owned by the Syrians, explaining that he urged all parties to prepare for submitting constitutional proposals.

And as for the steps of building trust (step for step), there are concrete ideas on the table, according to Pedersen, who called on the Syrian regime to engage in a profound and tangible process, and in the dialogue that will be necessary to develop joint, mutual and parallel steps.

 

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