Syrian opposition leader calls for pressure on Damascus as constitution talks loom

“The Assad regime’s strategy has always been to buy time and undermine and cripple the political process.”
Thursday 03/10/2019
Vice-president of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition. (Courtesy of Dima Moussa)
Not expecting much. Vice-president of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition. (Courtesy of Dima Moussa)

ISTANBUL - Syrian opposition leader Dima Moussa has called for international pressure on the Damascus government at talks about a new constitution for the war-torn country.

After almost two years of negotiations and setbacks, the United Nations announced the creation of a constitutional committee for Syria. The panel, which includes 50 representatives each from the government, the opposition and civil society, is to meet for the first time October 30 in Geneva.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen called the committee “a sign of hope for the long-suffering Syrian people” after more than eight years of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of the prewar population of 22 million.

The fact that the government and the opposition accepted the United Nations’ rules for the work of the committee marked “the first concrete political agreement between the two sides,” Pedersen said in a UN statement.

However, Moussa, vice-president of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a major group of the opposition-in-exile, and a member of the constitutional committee, said she did not expect much from the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Geneva talks.

“The Assad regime’s strategy has always been to buy time and undermine and cripple the political process,” Moussa said in an interview. “The Assad regime has done everything and anything to hinder any progress and the process of the constitutional committee will not be any different.”

Having opposition and civil society representatives in the committee “will make the regime even more obstructionist,” Moussa added.

The gulf between the government and the opposition remained deep, Pedersen admitted.

“This is a deeply divided society. There is a lack of trust, obviously between the two parties, but there is also a lack of trust between Syria and the international community,” Pedersen told Reuters. “So, hopefully, the constitutional committee can be a first step in the right direction.”

Syria is scheduled to have presidential elections in 2021 and the United Nations hopes the constitutional talks can create a climate and mechanism for free and fair elections.

Assad’s government, which has all but won the war militarily with the help of Russia, is highly unlikely to offer concessions on that front. Syrian officials suggested Assad, who is 54 and has ruled Syria for almost 20 years, will run for office again. The opposition says there can be no overall political resolution to the conflict as long as Assad remains in power.

Speaking at the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem reaffirmed the government’s support for the committee. However, he also cemented opposition concerns that Damascus could slow down the panel’s work, insisting that “no deadlines or timetables must be imposed on the committee."

Moussa, a 41-year-old US-trained lawyer from Homs, joined the opposition shortly after the conflict erupted in 2011 and has been vice-president of the SNC since last year. As one of the 50 opposition members of the constitutional committee, she is to travel to Geneva for the inaugural session of the panel.

The UN plan calls for the creation of a smaller group of delegates -- 15 members each from the government, the opposition and civil society -- to draft constitutional proposals before taking them to the full 150-member committee. Decisions require a 75% majority to make sure no group dominates the proceedings.

Moussa said only outside pressure could ensure that Assad’s government would agree to compromises in Geneva.

“There are two countries that support the regime: Russia and Iran. If anybody can apply pressure on the regime, it is those two countries, especially Russia,” she said.

Pressure on Russia to lean on Damascus had to come from the entire international community, Moussa added. “There has to be more engagement of geopolitical interests, especially from the US and the EU. There needs to be a real will,” she said.

The Syrian war has become a focus for EU countries since hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived there in 2015. A pact between Europe and Turkey stemmed the flow but Ankara warned that a Syrian government offensive in Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in Syria, could trigger a new influx of up to 1 million people.

“It is in Europe’s self-interest to convince Russia to put pressure on Assad,” Moussa said.

“Idlib is the last safe haven for Syrians who do not want to or cannot live under regime control. There is no Idlib after Idlib. Unless there is a solution, conditions in Syria will continue to deteriorate. There will be more waves of refugees.”

Even if the committee can agree on a new basic law and fresh elections, the challenges are daunting.

“Syrians inside and outside the country will need to feel safe enough to vote freely,” Moussa said.

She said the opposition had several core demands for the new constitution: “Equal citizenship, respect and freedoms for the citizens; a government that serves the people and not the other way around; separation of powers -- right now, the president is capable of enacting any laws he wants; and military and security services that protect the people.”

Moussa said she would travel to Geneva with “conflicting feelings.”

“There have been over eight years of seeing so much blood being shed. I feel a huge responsibility,” she said. “We realise that the constitution by itself is not going to solve all of Syria’s problems.”