Syria’s constitutional efforts grind to a halt

Unyielding enmity and distrust between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the opposition and other Syrian groups are among reasons for the delay.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Multiplayer game. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Moscow, last April. (AFP)
Multiplayer game. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Moscow, last April. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - A drive to set up a panel to write a new constitution for Syria has all but ground to a halt because of deep political differences between local and international players.

One year ago, a meeting in Russia of almost 1,400 representatives of various Syrian groups led to the formation of a “Constitutional Committee.” Announcing the decision on January 30, 2018, Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syria envoy at the time, said the committee’s work would be “drafting a constitutional reform.”

The plan sparked hopes for a political process in Syria that could lead to free elections and the end of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and has caused widespread destruction since 2011.

Twelve months later, there is no sign of constitutional talks starting anytime soon.

The United Nations said the committee is to draw 50 delegates each from three sides: the Syrian government, the opposition and civil society. The three groups’ composition was to be decided by the Damascus government, opposition organisations and the United Nations, respectively, but months of diplomatic efforts failed to get the committee established.

Russia, Iran and Turkey — the trio driving the so-called Astana process for Syria in parallel to UN peace efforts — missed a deadline set by Russian President Vladimir Putin to have the committee start work in December. They then said the panel should be up and running “early” in 2019 but that, too, appears to have been overly optimistic.

“This is a game with many sides,” Hasan Yalcin, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkish foreign policy, said. Yalcin, director of Strategic Studies at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a think-tank that often reflects the Turkish government thinking, said he did not expect the committee to be ready before May or June.

Unyielding enmity and distrust between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the opposition and other Syrian groups are among reasons for the delay. Following a string of victories on the battlefield, Assad appears in no rush to offer compromises to the opposition.

The United Nations last October said Damascus rejected the world body’s list of the 50 civil society members and did not accept a UN role in the selection of panellists. Western powers condemned Syria’s stance. The opposition is concerned that Assad could use the committee to make sure that his regime stays in power.

Further talks failed to overcome the impasse for much of last year but a statement issued by the Astana powers in December suggested they reached an agreement among themselves, even though no details were given.

International negotiations continue. New UN Syria Envoy Geir Pedersen raised the issue of the committee in talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and the US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, the United Nations said.

Turkey’s determination to prevent Kurdish autonomy in post-war Syria has been another complication. The ruling political powers in Syria’s Kurdish region with its approximately 2 million people — 10% of Syria’s total population — are the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), organisations regarded as terrorist groups by Ankara.

“Turkey is absolutely against the participation of the PYD,” Yalcin said. Shortly after the Sochi conference of January 2018, Ankara asked the United Nations not to include PYD members in the constitutional body but Kurdish representatives asked Western countries to pressure Turkey to overcome that veto, news reports said.

Wrangling between the Astana trio and the West also plays a part. Putin, speaking after a January 24 meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow, said France, Germany and the United Kingdom had called on the United Nations not to ratify the list of committee members presented by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Putin said he had been surprised by the European demand but expressed hope that differences could be overcome.

His comments followed Russian statements in December accusing Western countries of trying to sabotage the formation of the constitutional panel. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the US-led “small group” on Syria, which includes Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States, was trying to change the composition of the committee, news reports said.

US President Donald Trump’s unexpected announcement in December to pull out the 2,000 American troops deployed in Syria was an additional stumbling block because it changed the power balance in the country.

The withdrawal announcement triggered a scramble by several players for the wide parts of eastern Syria liberated from the Islamic State by the United States and the YPG, with possible repercussions on the committee’s composition. Turkey threatened to set up a buffer zone to drive the YPG from the border area, while Russia and the Assad government called for Syrian government troops to take control.

Putin has suggested talks between Turkey and Syria to settle the issue, pointing to the so-called Adana Protocol of 1998 that included joint Turkish-Syrian steps to combat terrorism. Analysts said the move could change relations between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.

“Putin is looking to build the bridge between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey, via Damascus, by putting the 1998 Adana agreement back in play,” Andrew Parasiliti of the RAND Corporation said via e-mail.  “This is not going to happen easily or quickly but it is one of the key steps in the political transition.”

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