Caution over Syria constitution process
TUNIS - In what has been billed as one of the greatest advances for international democracy in Syria since UN members called for a ceasefire and talks in 2015, the formation of the country’s constitutional committee was announced September 23.
Some analysts remained cautious, however, viewing the process as more designed to buy time for Russia and Iran as they seek to balance commitments to the Assad regime with conflicting relations with Turkey.
The mood in New York was unashamedly optimistic. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the “credible, balanced and inclusive” 150-member committee would convene in Geneva, expected to first meet October 30, allowing the United Nations to adopt a “broader political process forward.”
The regime and opposition were each assigned 50 committee members, with civil society groups and independents making up the rest. Consensus over the mandate of the committee seems distant, with opposition and regime figures arguing whether it serves to rewrite the constitution or merely consider potential amendments to it.
However, after years of fighting and two years of negotiations, that the committee has been formed is noteworthy. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab termed it a “welcome first step” and the leader of the opposition, Nasr Hariri, said “the battle is still long.”
UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said the committee’s first meeting would be October 30 but cautioned that fighting across Syria, especially in Idlib province, may slow negotiations in Geneva.
“The situation in the north-east is one of many challenges that we do have,” Pedersen told Voice of America. “What we have made sure is that the committee has a broad representation from all segments of the Syrian society. You know different ethnic, different religious communities and, of course, different political affiliations.”
Idlib is likely to prove pivotal to the committee and future talks. Both the Syrian government and Russia are engaged in a campaign to wrest control of the province from jihadist groups, including formerly al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates it.
That has placed them in dangerous proximity to Turkish forces and their proxies, deployed along Syria’s northern border to thwart the influence of the United States’ Kurdish allies, as well as block any move towards establishing a Kurdish statelet near Turkey’s border.
“The talks are less about establishing a settlement for Syrians than they are about trying to come up with a workable framework for the Iranians, Turks and Russians,” said Ryan Bohl, a MENA analyst with US geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor. “With Russia and Iran helping, (Syrian President Bashar) Assad move on Idlib, undercutting Turkey’s influence and reputation there, the three big powers have a major problem.”
Bohl said neither Moscow nor Tehran wanted to jeopardise the influence they’ve gained in Damascus by pressuring Assad to slow his advance on Idlib. Neither was either party keen on seeing inflamed tensions with Turkey.
“The committee is meant to slow down this process, de-escalate it and see if there’s a diplomatic path that would allow Turkey to hold some of its gains in northern Syria — particularly in assuring Ankara that Syria won’t become a major base for Kurdish militants to attack Turkey itself,” Bohl said.
“A symbolic constitutional process is likely to emerge, if only for the sake of reassuring Turkey that its interests are being taken into account for the civil war’s final phases,” Bohl continued, “but it would be symbolic: at the end of the day, a new Syrian constitution will not change the brute political facts on the ground.”
However, with allegations of gas attacks in Idlib, the committee’s chances of destigmatising the Assad regime to the point Western funds could become available for reconstruction seem a long shot. In addition, if only as a response to public pressure at home and diplomatic pressure from abroad, the United States is unlikely to relinquish its Syrian stronghold and, with it, its Kurdish allies on the basis of a new Syrian Constitution alone.
“Again, this goes back to the idea that this process is mostly window dressing when it comes to Syrian politics. Assad is going nowhere and his power will not be diluted,” Bohl said, “but the process has great value to Turkey, Russia and Iran as they negotiate the shape of their influence as the civil war comes to an end.”