Conflicting agendas, lack of clear timetable logjam Syria’s constitutional talks

Russia would like to move the talks from Geneva to Sochi. Damascus does not mind.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Members of the Syria constitution-writing committee attend a ceremony to mark the committee’s opening meeting, in Geneva, October 30. (AFP)
Suspended. Members of the Syria constitution-writing committee attend a ceremony to mark the committee’s opening meeting, in Geneva, October 30. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The Syrian constitutional talks are going nowhere. Despite international optimism at their commencement October 30, the process is stuck in gridlock. The second round of negotiations ended abruptly with no agreement on a work agenda or on a date for the third round.

The 150-member constitutional committee is divided into three groups: 50 each for the government, opposition and civil society members.

During the first round, they agreed on a 45-member drafting committee, which is to present its work to the 150 delegates for approval, which needs a 75% majority. On the drafting committee, 15 members  each stand for the government, opposition and civil society.

The government delegation has been referring to the opposition as the “Turkish regime delegation” and asked UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen to stop referring to the government representatives as a “government delegation.”

They want to be addressed as an independent delegation with pro-government views. Technically, this is important for what comes after the constitution is written. It gives the Syrian government the ability to wiggle out of any commitment to the final text if it’s not to its liking, claiming that the representatives are independent and not government-appointed. The decisions of the negotiators are non-binding.

There was also a request by the government delegates to outline “national principles” that it wanted the opposition and civil society to abide by before starting talks on the constitution. These included a pledge to combat terrorism, lift US and EU sanctions, uphold unity of Syrian territories, shun separatism and condemn Turkish aggression in north-eastern Syria.

The opposition refused, saying such commitments are preconditions for the talks and all sides had agreed to go to Geneva with no preconditions.

Until that is settled, no progress can be made on the drafting committee. Additionally, the opposition claims that videos were leaked from the first round by government delegates, infringing on secrecy commitments that all sides agreed to uphold before talks started.

The United Nations said it has already walked an extra mile to start the process. The United Nations secured a pledge from Syrian authorities to refrain from harassing opposition members travelling to the talks from Damascus and for the lifting of all arrest

 warrants in effect.

The United Nations also agreed to set no timetable for the talks, meaning they can drag into 2021, which is when Syrian presidential elections are scheduled.

UN officials also made sure that the process was exclusively Syrian, with only one foreigner — Pedersen — in the room. No foreign stakeholders were invited to the talks in Geneva.

That might be the reason the talks stalled. The Russians have been trying to move the talks from the UN-mandate process in Switzerland to the Russian one in Sochi or Kazakhstan. The Geneva process, they say, is the brainchild of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, while Sochi and Astana are sponsored by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The optimism has eroded after the second round,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian who is senior diplomatic editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. “There is a feeling in Western diplomatic circles that an attempt is under way to transfer the process away from Geneva to the three guarantors of Astana, being Russia, Turkey and Iran.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has hinted he would like to invite the co-chairmen of the government and opposition delegates to attend the next round of Astana talks, scheduled for December 10-11.

That would be music to the ears of Turkey and Iran, which feel left out by the Geneva process. The three countries wanted the talks to begin with the Sochi conference in January 2018, but the United States and the Europeans would not allow it, insisting that Geneva was the only process that they would recognise and adhere to, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

At their latest meeting in Istanbul, Iranian, Russian and Turkish officials hammered out military details for north-eastern Syria, as US troops withdrew from territory east of the Euphrates River, and would like to take their coordination to a political level as well, free of US interference.

Syrian officials would undoubtedly not mind a Russian-led process because they accuse the United Nations of favouritism towards the opposition but, even if that is settled, the two sides have a long way to go because they have not agreed on whether they will be amending the present charter, written in 2012, or develop a new constitution.

The government delegation insists that the president’s powers and term in office should remain untouched while the opposition wants to reduce presidential authority and the 7-year term that was inserted into the Syrian charter in 1973.