Astana conference fails to make headway on new Syria constitution

The next meeting of the so-called Astana process, which has overshadowed UN peace efforts for Syria, is to take place in February.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Russia’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev (2nd L) speaks with Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari (2nd R) during Syria peace talks in Astana, November 29. (Reuters)
Fragile process. Russia’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev (2nd L) speaks with Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari (2nd R) during Syria peace talks in Astana, November 29. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Russia, Turkey and Iran failed to initiate talks about a new constitution for war-torn Syria amid differences about the format of negotiations and tensions around the disputed province of Idlib.

A two-day conference in Astana, the 11th such meeting under the joint leadership of Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, ended November 29 without consensus on the 150 members of a planned constitutional committee for Syria.

The next meeting of the so-called Astana process, which has overshadowed UN peace efforts for Syria, is scheduled for early February, a statement published by Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said.

“This was the last occasion of an Astana meeting in 2018 and has, sadly for the Syrian people, been a missed opportunity to accelerate the establishment of a credible, balanced and inclusive, Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated constitutional committee,” the office of outgoing UN Syria Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said. “There was no tangible progress in overcoming the 10-month stalemate on the composition of the constitutional committee.”

De Mistura, who announced his resignation in October, capped his term as peace envoy by attending the talks in the Kazakh capital. Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen is to take over from de Mistura in January.

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst and expert on Russian-Turkish relations, said progress was unlikely before Pedersen starts work. The creation of the committee “seems unrealistic at least until the newly appointed UN special envoy for Syria creates his own team,” Has wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

Russia, the main military power in Syria that enabled Syrian President Bashar Assad to win back substantial parts of territory lost to various rebel factions since 2015, is eager to end the war to secure its newly won position as a Middle East power broker.

As the fighting winds down with Assad’s military victory all but assured after almost eight years of war that has killed more than 360,000 people, the Kremlin is trying to get a political process for a post-war Syria going.

In January, a Russia-sponsored conference on Syria decided to create a committee of 50 representatives of the government, 50 opposition supporters and 50 envoys from civil society to write a new constitution. However, repeated attempts have failed to forge a consensus about who should be allowed to sit on the panel.

A few days before the Astana meeting, Russia’s Foreign Ministry stressed it agreed with the United Nations on “the importance of the soonest formation and convocation of the constitutional committee in Geneva before the end of the year.” The lack of progress at the latest Astana talks suggested that the deadline will be missed.

There was disagreement about the committee’s task. The Syrian opposition says Syria needs a completely new basic law but the Assad government argues that the committee should only “discuss the current constitution,” as the official news agency SANA put it in a report from Astana.

Has said there were numerous other problems as well, ranging from the question of how centralised a new Syrian state should be to how to deal with Kurdish demands for regional autonomy or with the presence of foreign troops in the country.

While Turkey would like to see a new constitution, “revising the existing one would be Russia’s priority in today’s conditions,” he wrote.

Russia, Turkey and Iran said in their statement that they would “intensify” consultations to establish the committee as soon as possible and Moscow remained upbeat despite the deadlock. “The Russian side views the outcome of the conference as positive,” Russia’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev said. “I want to say that we are sufficiently close to our cherished goal” with respect to the committee.

Despite Lavrentiev’s expressions of optimism, the Astana meeting saw new political tensions between the Syrian government and Turkey, a sponsor of anti-Assad forces, following renewed fighting around Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold in Syria. Under an agreement hammered out by Turkey and Russia in September, a planned government assault to win back Idlib for Assad was put on hold but the recent fighting and accusations by Damascus that rebels used chemical weapons have called the ceasefire into question.

“The chemical weapons that have been delivered to terrorists in Idlib and those who allow them to use such weapons against civilians in Aleppo raise many questions and we consider the Turkish regime a first suspect,” SANA quoted Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s UN ambassador and head of the Damascus delegation in Astana, as saying.

Jaafari accused Turkey of turning into an occupation force following the deployment of Turkish troops in the northern Syrian regions of Jarabulus and Afrin. Syria was facing “an aggression and a clear occupation carried out by the Turkish regime,” the Syrian diplomat said.

Russia also showed signs of growing impatience with insurgents in Idlib and with Turkey, which promised Moscow to rein in rebels in the area with the help of local proxies. Lavrentiev said more than 15,000 Jabhat al-Nusra militants remained in Idlib.

“We very much hope that the moderate opposition’s armed units will manage to resolve the situation in this troubled area and establish order themselves,” he said in a TASS news agency report “If needed, we are ready to provide all possible help, including the assistance of the Syrian government forces.”

Has commented that the Astana meeting had shaken the agreement on Idlib. “The already fragile Idlib deal became just more fragile,” he wrote.