The Fate of Syria’s Constitutional Committee

April 2, 2019

Without the participation of the Syrian public, both inside and outside Syria, a constitution written in Geneva, Astana, or in Paris may not have the legitimacy required to mobilize the Syrian public to participate in a transitional political process.
Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Russia and Iran Mevlut Cavusoglu, Sergei Lavrov, and Javad Zarif meet at United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss setting up a committee to draft a new constitution as part of talks on Syrian crisis on December 18, 2018. AA

Following the last meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they announced that there was a list of constitutional committee members agreed to by both the Syrian government and the opposition. They also confirmed that efforts to form the committee and kick off its work were a priority and developments were expected soon.

Talk of the creation of a Syrian constitutional committee is the result of Turkish, Russian and Iranian efforts via the Astana process to help move the conflict towards a political solution. Leaders of these countries act as guarantors for Astana decisions and insist that the process aims to reinforce UNSC resolution 2254 (2013) which, calls for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The constitutional committee is to be formed with 150 members: 50 regime representatives, 50 opposition representatives and 50 civil society representatives chosen by the UN.

However, it is unlikely that progress will be made on the constitutional committee with the situation as it is in Syria. Both the conditions on the ground and the political atmosphere are not conducive for a diplomatically negotiated solution. Without disregarding the efforts of regional and international actors at reducing the violence and moving the conflict towards a negotiated solution, it’s not enough to achieve the conditions needed for the formation of a constitutional committee. This is because the demilitarized zone agreed to by Russia and Turkey are not going to keep the regime at bay, the fight east of the Euphrates is still up in the air, and the political consensus needed to make basic decisions regarding the constitution are nonexistent. These obstacles are the main reasons why a political solution to the Syrian conflict and efforts to do so through the formation of a constitutional committee are doomed for failure.

Operational obstacles to a negotiated solution

Even though many claim that the military situation on the ground is wrapping up, this is an incorrect assessment. Unfortunately, the many efforts to bring violent attacks to a halt in Syria have failed to do so and the largely defenseless civilian population is usually at the receiving end of such attacks. Military operations are ongoing in eastern Syria, chasing down the remnants of Daesh fighters that were not in Baghouz when the U.S.-led coalition attacked that territory. Furthermore, in the north east, the so called Syrian Democratic Forces – of which the PKK’s Syrian wing, the YPG, make up the bulk of the force, are on a crash course with the locals, Arab tribes, and Daesh sleeper cells. The situation in eastern Syria is further complicated following a recently released statement from Hayat Tahrir al Shaam, the Jabhat al Nusra Al Qaeda affiliate that is the dominant force in Idlib and northern Hama, which claims that sleeper cells of its own, living in regime controlled parts of Deir Ezzor, attacked and killed a number of regime soldiers. This came just days after the YPG-dominated SDF announced the defeat of Daesh in its last enclave, Baghouz. 

In northwestern Syria, the Syrian regime – backed by Russian air power – continues to conduct air strikes in northern Hama and Idlib province – especially along the M5 highway. These strikes are causing serious damage to civilian infrastructure and also killing civilians, including children. A successful regime operation would result in a further consolidated regime victory over the opposition and an unprecedented displacement of civilians and opposition members who would be forced to leave Idlib towards northern Aleppo or into Turkey. This would surely destabilize the Turkey backed Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield territories and put added pressure on Turkey to ensure security and stability in these territories. Just a few days ago a Turkish soldier was killed in an exchange of mortar fire between Turkey-backed forces in northern Aleppo and YPG elements in Tel Rifaat. With the Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar opening a new operations command center in Akcakale, Turkey is surely motivated to keep military operations in high gear. Especially against groups like the PKK affiliate, the YPG, who pose a direct threat to Turkey’s national security. Likewise, Russia and the regime backed by Iran are not taking off the table the option of an offensive in Idlib any time soon.

Understanding what the future holds for Syria is aided by the case of the southern Syrian province of Daraa. There the Syrian opposition was forced to concede their weapons and sign Russian facilitated reconciliation agreements with the regime because the United States told opposition forces there that they could no longer protect them from Russian and regime attacks. Now, the frustrated public, and select opposition forces, have formed what is being called a “popular resistance.” They have claimed several attacks that have targeted Syrian regime officials, including an Air Force Intelligence officer and Hezbollah operatives operating between Damascus and Daraa.

In northwestern Syria, the Syrian regime – backed by Russian air power – continues to conduct air strikes in northern Hama and Idlib province – especially along the M5 highway. These strikes are causing serious damage to civilian infrastructure and also killing civilians, including children

And east of the Euphrates, the PKK is further entrenching it’s forces into public life. PKK founder Ocalan is venerated by militant ideologues who plaster his face all across northeastern Syria from Deir Ez-zor, to Raqqa, and Qamishli. With U.S. forces on the retreat, Arab tribal forces are expected to counterbalance the influence of Leninist Marxist ideologies. However, the tribal forces’ loyalties are misplaced, working with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in an attempt to take measures steps to prevent further Iranian expansion in Syria. Their fear is that when the U.S. retreats, the regime, backed by Iranian funded militias, will move in to take valuable Syrian territory. The land east of the Euphrates is where most of Syria’s oil fields and natural resources are found- including fresh water and are able land that produces much of Syria’s grains.

With so much at stake, a political solution may not be the most feasible means for reaching an end to the conflict. The regime is still hopeful to retake the entire country by force, further legitimizing Assad’s rule. And Russia is stuck between propping up a government that has destroyed its own country for the sake of survival, and working with Turkey, hoping to bring it further away from NATOs sphere of influence.

Diplomatic obstacles to a negotiated solution

With the situation on the ground so complicated, the diplomatic efforts are a reflection of those intricacies. Both Turkey and Russia are insistent on achieving progress through the Astana process because it will secure their voices at future negotiations and ensure their participation in a rebuilding process, worth hundreds of billions by some estimates, that Russia and the regime insist have already begun. However, ensuring the necessary progress is proving more difficult than desired.

There are three groups that are to make up the proposed constitutional committee. If Russia and Turkey have reached consensus on the regime and opposition lists, there remains the question of approving the list of 50 Syrian civil society members. Those are to be chosen by the new UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen. He adopted from his predecessor a Syrian Civil Society Support Group that is sanctioned by the UN. They sponsor and facilitate meetings with Syrian civil society organizations that operate inside Syria and outside as well. The issue with those civil society members is that they may not have approvals from other members of the constitutional committee, from both the regime and opposition sides. Some observers familiar with Syrian politics note that the Syrian civil society inside regime controlled areas is generally pro regime and do not represent the Syrian public at large. The second group of Syrian civil society adopts the opposition’s approach to the conflict and operate in opposition controlled areas and in Turkey. The third portion of Syria’s civil society organizations operate in YPG controlled areas east of the Euphrates River and are directly affiliated with the Marxist Leninist PYD political wing of the YPG. The division of Syrian civil society will make it very difficult for the incoming UN Special Envoy’s job of finalizing a Syrian civil society list that much more difficult.

Another major issue of contention is the constitution itself. There are two approaches to dealing with the constitution. Unconfirmed reports to Arab news sources say the French are suggesting skipping writing a new constitution and making amendments to the 2012 constitution. These amendments would be reached through direct negotiations between the regime and the opposition facilitated by the international community. The regime accepted this proposal on the condition that future elections would only allow people in regime controlled areas to participate in the voting.  This option excludes the votes of the millions of Syrians that are displaced inside Syria, made refugees in surrounding countries, and those Syrians that are yet to be accounted for. The other option is for the constitutional committee form and engage in extensive negotiations to write a new constitution. Neither of these options are possible without first making progress on some core issues: release of prisoners, return of refugees, and holding those responsible for crimes against the Syrian people accountable. Insecurity and instability are a symptom of a larger condition in Syria. The cycle of violence Syrians are living in is a result of the Assad regime’s security apparatus and violent attacks against defenseless civilians. If this is not stopped, then any efforts towards a political solution will be in vain.

Finally, there are erroneous calls for changing the name of the Syrian Arab Republic so that it does not have any ethnic identifier. PKK ideologues representing the so-called Autonomous Administration in eastern Syria are calling for a complete autonomy and are engaged with negotiations with the Assad regime to achieve this status. It’s not clear if they have made much progress, but what is clear is that they expect to play a significant role in any of the future scenarios regarding forming a constitutional committee and moving the country out of a cycle of violence and into a political transition. Ironically, all of their efforts are quite deceptive since they have been partners with the regime in suppressing legitimate opposition against Assad, they have coordinated business transactions between Assad and Daesh, and have contributed to the destruction of major Syrian cities including Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, and helped U.S. forces kill scores of civilians in the name of fighting terror.

The PKK’s efforts are deceptive since they have been partners with the Syrian regime in suppressing legitimate opposition. The PKK has also coordinated business transactions between Assad and Daesh, and contributed to the destruction of major Syrian cities. 

Constitutional committee woes

Forming a constitutional committee requires that the participants have consensus and approval from all sides. The cycle of violence on the ground must come to an end and civilians must be able to reunite with their families and return to their homes. But as UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen clearly saw when he visited Home recently, regime efforts are more focused on rebuilding and renovating destroyed markets than rebuilding civilian homes and letting people come back home. Unfortunately, the international community may be sabotaging efforts to form a constitutional committee because they see little potential in the Syrian opposition and do not want Turkey and Russia to succeed in creating the political momentum needed to push the political solution forward and give reverence to the UN Geneva resolution 2254. For these reasons the military option is still very much on the table for the Assad regime and its Iranian allies. Russian pressure may not be enough to stop an Iranian backed Assad regime from trying to retake Idlib province.

Engaging in talks preceded by confidence building measures including the release of prisoners and excluding those responsible for committing gross human rights violations from the political process are critical to ensuring the success of any political efforts towards peace. For the Astana guarantors, cooperation and coordination with the UN, is critical to keep the momentum of their diplomatic efforts alive. But before any of this can move forward, there needs to be real grass roots support from the Syrian public in regime controlled areas, opposition controlled areas, and the Syrians spread around the region and the world. Furthermore, regardless of developments on the ground, without the participation of the Syrian public, both inside and outside Syria, a constitution written in Geneva or Astana, or even Paris, may not have the legitimacy required to mobilize the Syrian public to participate in a transitional political process. This is even more unlikely if Bashar al Assad remains the figurehead of the Syrian regime and is not held accountable for the crimes he, and those who fought with him, committed against the Syrian people.