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Geneva meeting on Syria could deliver much-needed breakthrough

Oct 19,2021 - Last updated at Oct 19,2021

For the first time in almost two years, the two opposing sides in the Syrian conflict have co-chaired a meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee this week in Geneva after agreeing earlier to begin the drafting process of a new basic law for the country. After a pause of nine months, the committee, comprising representatives of the Syrian regime and members of the political opposition plus key figures of civil society, are holding the sixth round of talks under UN auspices.

UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen said the committee will discuss key principles on its first day, then begin drafting articles for a new constitution. A 45-member committee will draft the articles before delivering them to a 150-member panel for approval.

Two years of separate discussions have led to nowhere with the Syrian regime representatives refusing to commit to anything on paper. But the past few months saw crucial diplomatic movements that appear to have a direct impact on the position of the Damascus regime.

President Bashar Assad’s visit to Moscow in September and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin may have covered the political aspect of moving forward towards a settlement of the decade-old Syrian conflict. That visit came a month after His Majesty King Abdullah flew to Moscow to discuss, among other things, the Syrian crisis with Putin. In September and on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov held discussions with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al Miqdad that covered the upcoming meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi also met Miqdad in New York and discussed ways to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

It is believed that Putin has urged Assad to show flexibility in Geneva. Initially the formation of the committee was based on a UN Security Council resolution 2254 of 2015, but only after Russia’s intervention in 2018 that a final framework was agreed upon between the regime and the opposition. Since then five meetings were held with little or no progress. Regime representatives had said earlier that no agreement will be implemented on the ground. Last May, President Assad was reelected for a fourth term but only a few countries recognised the outcome.

But since then, there appears to have been a major shift in regional perception of the conflict that had killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. The US, the biggest donor, has agreed to continue providing humanitarian aid to around 11 million displaced Syrians through Turkey. And while the Biden administration insists that it will not deal with the Assad regime and will continue to impose sanctions under the Caesar Act, it has proposed supplying energy-starved Lebanon with electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt through Syrian territory.

This initiative coincided with King Abdullah calling on the US and Europe to engage the Russians into finding a political end to the conflict by focusing on changing the behavior of the regime rather than regime change. As a result Jordan had reopened its borders with Syria and hosted senior Syrian government and military officials in Amman. And earlier this month King Abdullah received a call from Assad, the first since 2011.

Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia have all made goodwill gestures towards Damascus in the hope of reintegrating Syria into the Arab fold while undercutting Iran’s influence in that country. That goal is shared by Moscow, whose leader has called on all uninvited foreign troops to leave the country, and Israel. The US position is not clear but Jordan and Egypt would not have moved towards normalising ties with Assad without Washington’s tacit approval.

A secret document, said to be Jordanian, that was published by Asharq Al Awsat earlier this month suggests taking practical steps to normalise ties with Syria while recognising Russian interests in that country in return for a gradual change in the behaviour of the regime. That new approach is in line with what Pedersen had suggested, which was to adopt a step-by-step plan that begins with a US-Russian understanding on Syria.         

Back in Geneva it is too early to show enthusiasm but the fact that the two sides are meeting face-to-face and that they have agreed to take practical steps towards drafting a new basic law is a major change in the attitude of Damascus. By Friday we will know more and what the ensuing steps will look like.

Many have criticised the Geneva process for failing to deliver but there are few alternatives, if any, to a balanced political course that would draw a roadmap that would culminate in a political settlement. Naturally, there are many obstacles ahead and while the joint Jordan-Egypt initiative is a transactional one; Assad is expected to reciprocate by showing some flexibility and willingness to distance himself from Iran, so far the regime has kept its cards close to its chest.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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