Syria's Constitutional Committee convenes with historic opposition involvement

The process won’t be easy or quick. Negotiators are yet to agree on whether they are going to amend the present charter, written in 2012, or create a new one from scratch.
Sunday 03/11/2019
A Syrian-led process. UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen (C), Syrian MP Ahmad Al-Kuzbari (L) and head of Opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission Hadi Al-Bahra attend a meeting of the Syria Constitutional Committee in Geneva, October 31.(AFP)
A Syrian-led process. UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen (C), Syrian MP Ahmad Al-Kuzbari (L) and head of Opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission Hadi Al-Bahra attend a meeting of the Syria Constitutional Committee in Geneva, October 31.(AFP)

BEIRUT - The Syrian Constitutional Committee is now in motion after two years of crippling delay. A total of 150 Syrian delegates gathered in Geneva to start work on “constitutional reforms.” It would be the first time since the Ba’ath Party took power in Syria in 1963 that opposition figures were included on a constitutional committee.

Opposition hardliners have been very critical of the UN-led process, saying it dwarfs their demands for regime change, replacing decapitation and formation of a transitional government body with a low-ceiling benchmark of a new constitution.

All major components of the opposition are represented on the committee, however, including the Turkey-backed Syrian Negotiations Committee, the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee and the Russia-backed Moscow Platform and National Coordination Committees.

The Ankara-sponsored Free Syrian Army is also on-board as are a handful of defectors from the Syrian Army and Foreign Ministry.

UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen has been serious about presenting a “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process,” inviting none of the international stakeholders to attend, not even the Astana guarantors: Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The process won’t be easy or quick, however. Negotiators are yet to agree on whether they are going to amend the present charter, written in 2012, or create a new one from scratch.

They must decide who will serve on the 45-member drafting committee, which is to include 15 members for the government, 15 for the opposition and 15 for civil society. To achieve a majority vote, the two main groups will have to sway independents from civil society to vote with them on any specific legislation.

The government delegation insists on no deadline for completion, which means the talks could drag into 2021 when the term of Syrian President Bashar Assad expires. If a constitution is drafted before that date, he would only be entitled to two consecutive terms, starting in 2021.

However, if a charter is completed after he is re-elected for another 7-year term, then the clause would go into effect starting 2028. Negotiators are keen on starting the process, however, hoping the international community will begin normalising relations with Damascus now that the political process is under way.

The opposition will try to push for empowerment of a prime minister, at the expense of the presidency — a proposal that has been flatly rejected by the Syrian government.

The current constitution says the president of the republic is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in charge of all security agencies and head of the judiciary. He has the power to hire and fire ministers and to dissolve the executive branch.

The opposition is demanding a revisit of the 1950 charter, which was established after the demise of Syria’s first military regime, greatly reducing presidential powers.

“Given its defeat on the battlefield, I cannot imagine that the opposition can impose anything on the regime,” said Nikolaos Van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Syria and an author on Syrian history.

“The regime will never accept anything against its convictions,” he said. “Its only value is that it starts communication between the regime and the opposition. Otherwise, it has not been chosen by the Syrian people and it’s not up to the international community to decide what’s acceptable to the Syrian people and what’s not.”

Also challenging will be accommodation of Syrian Kurds, who are greatly underrepresented on the committee, with only four of the 150 seats and only one delegate on the 45-man constitution drafting committee.

During their agreement with Damascus on October 13, they were told the government delegation would make sure their demands are upheld in any future constitution. There was no elaboration on what that meant but the slightest form of Kurdish federalism is a redline for government negotiators and so are local parliaments for towns and cities.

What’s on the table is to recognise the Kurdish language as a secondary one in Syria, secondary to Arabic, and to change the country’s name by dropping the word “Arab” from its formal name — the Syrian Arab Republic.

Any serious push beyond that, however, would be automatically vetoed by Turkey-backed negotiators from the opposition side, who still take their cue from Ankara. Should that happen, the transfer of power of Kurdish towns in north-eastern Syria, which has been smooth for now, might slow down or face problems.

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