Syria’s Constitutional Committee faces ninth round test in April

The UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson (Edited by Enab Baladi)

The UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Hussam Mahmoud

On February 22, 2022, the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson, set the dates for the seventh, eighth, and ninth rounds of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s proceedings. Indeed, two out of the three rounds were held, leaving the ninth round pending since then, conditional on the political changes that the international scene has witnessed, with the Syrian file not being isolated from them.

The ninth round was scheduled to be held in June 2022, but just two days after Pederson set a preliminary date for the three rounds, Russia invaded its neighbor Ukraine. Switzerland, which hosts these talks in its second-largest city (Geneva), became a non-neutral environment in the eyes of Moscow, since it opposes the Russian invasion of Ukraine, like the European Union countries, the United States, and many countries of the world.

These circumstances have left the ninth round hostage to a consensus on an alternative country to host the only politically accepted UN path for the Syrian file and have shifted the compass of dispute from the files under discussion to the place of such discussions, adding a new disagreement to other complex, intricate disputes, with this time the parties being not the Syrian regime and the opposition, but Moscow and the Western countries after their relationship began to slide following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the Syrian people bearing the cost.

Statements by Arab and western officials, and all assurances about the necessity of resuming the work of the Constitutional Committee from where it stopped (the eighth round on June 3, 2022), did not bring the ninth round any closer, nor did it allow the process to continue, leading Pederson to announce, on February 27, the issuance of official invitations to hold the ninth round in Geneva at the end of next April.

The ninth round invitation: Opposition agrees, Regime has reservations

During a briefing he presented to the Security Council, the UN envoy said he would send the invitations that same day, expressing his hope for a positive response from the Syrian parties, as he appealed to the main international parties to support the United Nations’ efforts as a facilitator, and to refrain from intervening in the location of the Syrians’ meeting.

Pederson also clarified that the Constitutional Committee cannot resolve the conflict alone, and Resolution “2254” addresses a broad array of issues, reminding of the clear ideas concerning confidence-building measures, “step for step”, and addressing the essential elements of Resolution “2254”.

This step by Pederson was met with unofficial reservations from the Syrian regime, as expressed by the regime-affiliated Al-Watan newspaper, which considered the UN envoy’s stance as an attempt to embarrass Russia.

Al-Watan newspaper published, “Despite his knowledge of the Russian position regarding the venue of the Constitutional Committee’s sessions, and the recent official confirmation by the Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, that the suspension of the Committee’s work is due to the fact that Geneva has undermined its reputation as a neutral platform, and cannot be considered a neutral venue, as this country has openly taken an anti-Russian stance, the UN envoy extended the invitation for the ninth constitutional round to take place in Geneva, at the end of the upcoming April.”

On its part, the Syrian Negotiation Commission for Revolutionary Forces and Opposition announced its acceptance of Pederson’s invitation, and the closing statement of the Commission’s meeting in Istanbul, over March 8 and 9, included that the Commission had sent its official approval to send its delegation representatives in the Constitutional Committee to attend the meeting, noting that the round would be held during the period between April 22 and 26.

Preliminary preparations

Efforts to hold the ninth round of the Constitutional Committee’s work were not surprising to the Russians; the Special Envoy of the Russian President to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, stated on January 29 that the Constitutional Committee might have a meeting in March, and the venue of the meeting could be selected in mid or late February.

Lavrentiev then clarified that after the withdrawal of Oman from the race to host the negotiations, alternative places were being considered, while Damascus examines the most acceptable options.

Meanwhile, Pederson’s attempts to hold the ninth round, and to overcome Moscow’s approval and refusal, came relatively late, after Al-Watan newspaper hinted in October 2023, quoting unnamed diplomatic sources in Geneva, to Pederson’s insistence on holding the Constitutional Committee’s work in Geneva, he may present a project to take the process out of Russia’s veto.

The newspaper indicated that the UN envoy was considering a draft statement through which he would extend an invitation to the negotiating delegations without the attendance of any foreign country, to overcome Moscow’s veto on holding the meetings in Geneva, despite realizing that the project would not be approved by Moscow or the Syrian regime and its backers, and the newspaper suggested on its sources’ behalf that Pederson was risking the committee’s future with this operation.

The subject of resuming the work of the Constitutional Committee was one of the issues discussed during the 21st round of Astana international talks on Syria (held on January 24-25), and this matter was discussed during a meeting between the Syrian opposition delegation and the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister, on the sidelines of Astana, noting a decrease in the severity of fundamental disagreements in this regard.

What is behind the invitation?

Dr. Ahmed Toma, head of the opposition delegation participating in the Astana talks, explained to Enab Baladi that Moscow’s refusal to go to Geneva necessarily means the regime’s refusal of that as well. Being aware of this point, the UN envoy has been looking for alternatives for a while, and proposed Nairobi (the capital of Kenya) as an alternative venue, considering it hosts several key UN offices, but this point does not seem to have achieved full consensus.

Toma stressed that if the round takes place as scheduled at the end of next April, the opposition will participate regardless of the positions of the Russians and the regime, for the international community to clearly see who is obstructing the work of the committee and hindering its meetings.

Regarding the future of the Constitutional Committee in case the failure to agree on a venue for its meetings persists, Toma said, “We do not have a clear vision of what the United Nations will do in the future if it becomes fully convinced that they cannot be resumed.”

Similarly, another source informed about the work of the Constitutional Committee, who requested anonymity, suggested to Enab Baladi that Pederson’s insistence on holding the ninth round in Geneva indicates his conviction of reaching a dead end. Either he takes this step and succeeds, or he fails and has a justification to present his resignation in the upcoming period, which means that the purpose of the invitation is not the holding of the ninth round of the Constitutional Committee in the first place.

On October 30, 2018, the United Nations appointed the Norwegian diplomat, Geir Pederson, as the UN envoy to Syria, among four candidates to manage the negotiation helm after the former UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, stepped down, who had maintained his position for four years without delivering a political solution to the Syrian file.

Pederson inherited the Syrian file with its detailed weight from his predecessors (Kofi Annan, then Lakhdar Brahimi, then de Mistura), and walked the path of the Constitutional Committee for periods that did not achieve tangible progress on the ground, dividing opinions between the usefulness of continuing a resultless mission and stepping down like his predecessors.

Western realism and Arab persistence

Since June 2019, after about 17 months from the approval of forming the Constitutional Committee which had not held its first round yet, the American ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Jonathan Cohen, called on Pederson to think of another initiative due to the lack of progress in its formation and the Syrian regime’s stalling.

The French ambassador to the United Nations at the time, François Delattre, also noted that no progress had been made in forming the Constitutional Committee, explaining that the Syrian regime refuses any compromise and doubles the stalling maneuvers to prevent the success of this first forum for dialogue.

These calls did not find a receptive audience, and the Constitutional Committee held its first round on October 30 of the same year. However, the period of suspension and obstruction of resuming the committee’s work, which is similar to the time span between announcing its formation and starting its first round (about 21 months), did not convince regional powers of the need to seek an alternative or a parallel track that might take the place of the stagnating committee, which did not yield concrete results on the ground over eight rounds or discuss sensitive issues, in the face of the regime’s attempts to dilute negotiations and continue to stall in proposals.

In a joint statement issued after the ministerial meeting of the strategic dialogue between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Russia in July 2023, the foreign ministers emphasized the importance of the Constitutional Committee’s role, showing support for its work, through continuous communication with the Syrian parties in this committee, and with the UN envoy as a facilitator to ensure its continuity and effectiveness.

Moreover, the foreign ministers of the Arab Liaison Committee on Syria (Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Syrian regime) issued a joint statement after their meeting in Cairo in mid-August 2023. They expressed their aspiration to resume the constitutional Syrian track and hold the next meeting of the Constitutional Committee before the end of the same year, agreeing on the importance of completing the track seriously, as it is one of the main axes on the way to ending the “crisis” and achieving the desired settlement and “national reconciliation”.

One of the items included in the final statement of the Amman Consultative Meeting (which included the foreign ministers of Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Syrian regime) on May 1, 2023, was working to resume the work of the Constitutional Committee as soon as possible, and within the context of political steps aimed at achieving comprehensive national reconciliation.

Where did Pedersen reach?

During his participation in a discussion session on Syria, titled “The Road to Stability in Syria,” as part of the first day of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum on March 1, the UN envoy to Syria said that the direct settlement process in Syria requires a de-escalation in the Middle East and an increase in humanitarian support to Syria, as well as activating the work of the Constitutional Committee.

He also considered that the work of the Constitutional Committee, with the participation of all parties within the country, is an important element in the potential settlement process in Syria, noting that the Constitutional Committee itself will not solve the crisis, but it will help the parties find common ground.

On March 10, during an interview with the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, Pedersen said that the lack of trust between the parties involved in the war in Syria hinders reaching a political solution to the conflict that has been ongoing for more than a decade.

He added, “There is a deep lack of trust among all parties to the conflict, between the Syrian sides and international ones, which we need to bring together if we want to solve this conflict (…) We need to make progress in negotiations between the government and the opposition, and we need some kind of cooperation between Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the United States, with support from the Arabs and Europeans, which we really don’t see.”

What is the Constitutional Committee?

Its formation was approved at the National Dialogue conference in the Russian city of Sochi on January 30, 2018.

Its purpose is to reform the constitution in accordance with Security Council Resolution “2254” (issued in 2015), which calls for the formation of an inclusive, non-sectarian transitional ruling body, the drafting of a constitution for the country, and the organization of legislative and presidential elections under the new constitution, within 18 months.

It was approved by the tripartite summit between the presidents of Turkey, Russia, and Iran (Sochi) in September 2019.

It consists of three delegations comprising the opposition, the regime, representatives of civil society, and experts selected by the United Nations.

Its first round was held on October 30, 2019, leading up to the eighth round in June 2022.

Assad’s stance on it

“Since the first weeks of the war, they tried to convince us to suspend the existing constitution at that time, in order to create a vacuum that leads to chaos.

Once again, you have proven the unity of the constitution’s and homeland’s battle, thus confirming that the constitution is a priority that is not subject to discussion or bargaining because it is the address of the homeland and because it is the decision of the people.”

Bashar al-Assad during the constitutional oath speech on July 17, 2021

“Turkey and the countries supporting it, including the United States and their allies, are not interested in the constructive work of the Constitutional Committee, and their demands aim to weaken the Syrian state and to fragment it.”

Al-Assad in an interview with the Zeiverda channel affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense – October 2020

“The Constitutional Committee has nothing to do with the subject of elections, it is only related to the subject of the constitution. But if they think that they will return to the era of the mandate, then I will tell them, this will only be in their dreams.”

Al-Assad in an interview with Russia 24 channel and Russia Sivodina media agency – November 15, 2019


النسخة العربية من المقال

Related Articles

  1. Geir Pedersen calls for ninth round of Syrian Constitutional Committee’s talks in Geneva
  2. UN envoy to Syria denies; opposition refuses to scrap Geneva as venue for Constitutional Committee talks
  3. Russia, Iran, Turkey set out to shape agenda of Syrian Constitutional Committee
  4. Date and agenda… two new rounds of talks for Syrian Constitutional Committee

Propaganda distorts the truth and prolongs the war..

Syria needs free media.. We need your support to stay independent..

Support Enab Baladi..

$1 a month makes a difference..

Click here to support