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The long road ahead for Syria’s constitutional committee

Oct 01,2019 - Last updated at Oct 01,2019

It took almost two years of arduous negotiations to agree on the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which was formally announced by UN Secretary General António Guterres last week. The move, praised by both the Syrian government and the opposition, is now seen as the first serious step in engaging parties in a political process aiming at delivering a new constitution that will lead to free and open elections in the war-torn country. The 150-member committee, comprising government, opposition and civil society representatives, will meet on October 30 in Geneva, a city that has seen numerous attempts at launching a Syrian-Syrian dialogue in the past years without results.

But it is too early to make presumptions about the prospects of the new process. There are major obstacles in its path and the first has to do with its mandate. The regime’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said that the committee should consider amending the 2012 constitution, while the opposition wants to draft a new one. The focus will be on the wide-ranging authorities that the president holds under the current constitution. The opposition wants such powers to be in the hands of a freely elected parliament, a key issue that the regime will surely oppose.

Muallem also pointed out few days ago that the committee has no specific timeline to deliver its results, an issue that could derail the entire process right from the onset. He also said that the work of the committee, created in the framework of UN Security Council resolution 2254, will have no effect on the current military operations to rid the country of “terrorists” and “foreign troops”. The opposition has called for a truce in the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are wedged between government soldiers and fighters belonging mostly to Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which is led by Al Nusra, accused of having links to Al Qaeda.

While an all-Syrian dialogue is an important development in the eight-year civil war, foreign influence is likely to play a major role in the course of the talks. Russia, Turkey, Iran and the US all have a presence in Syria and their interests and objectives are at odds with each other. The core of talks in Geneva will eventually centre on one critical point: The fate of President Bashar Assad. The regime, which has managed to reverse its fortunes following Russia’s military intervention four years ago, will do its utmost to reject attempts to draft articles that will undercut the president’s prerogatives. It is hard to imagine the interlocutors reaching a compromise without pressure from Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Washington.

The committee’s work will eventually deviate from previous decelerations, understandings and agreements reached in Geneva, Astana and Sochi, even though such agreements have been mentioned as possible references in the UN’s official document. The committee will soon enter unchartered territory, and parties will find themselves discussing such contentious issues as the repatriation of refugees, alleged war crimes, decentralisation and autonomy, especially for Kurds, as well as foreign presence in Syrian territory, among others.

The process will present an opportunity for all parties to claim that a political solution is being debated. For the regime, it will represent an important message to the world that it is being rehabilitated after years of isolation. For the opposition, which has suffered from divisions and lack of leadership, it will represent a form of recognition by the regime, But those who believe that the process will deliver a political solution will likely be disappointed.

Russia, which has a heavy investment in Syria, will continue to stand by the regime, and the same goes for Iran, which is engaged in a tricky regional power struggle, especially with the US, through its proxies. For Turkey, its objectives are in conflict with those of its allies and as things stand today, it is the only country that continues to support the opposition both politically and militarily.

The US, which backs Syria’s Kurds and has soldiers on the ground, the goals are unclear. No one really knows what Washington’s end game is about, other than keeping an eye on other foreign players in the country and having a voice in the new political process.

It is probably misleading to describe the Geneva process as launching a Syrian-Syrian dialogue. The fate of Syria lies, unfortunately, not in the hands of Syrians but somewhere behind closed doors in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Washington. Syrians have paid a hefty price since 2011 and while this latest political process can only be viewed as a positive move forward, we should be careful not to pin high hopes on its outcome.

 

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

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