UN holds talks on 'Syrian-owned' constitutional committee

Negotiations with the Kurds, who control of around a quarter of the country, are already underway.
Thursday 02/08/2018
A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. (Reuters)
A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The United Nations announced on Tuesday that it was in discussions with three of Syria’s dominant warring parties -- Russia, Turkey and Iran -- to begin work on a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned” constitutional committee, the body charged with formulating the bedrock on which all of Syria’s future laws would be founded.

However, before Damascus can impose its template on the war-wracked country, it must deal with the swathes of territory currently under Kurdish control to the north and east and Idlib, which is the dumping ground for what remains of Syria’s disparate rebel armies and is subsumed within Ankara’s sphere of influence.

Negotiations with the Kurds, who control around a quarter of the country – mostly in the fertile and oil rich terrain to the east of the Euphrates – are already underway, having mostly been spurred by Kurdish doubts over their increasingly unreliable alliance with the US.

On Saturday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) announced it had begun to “chart a roadmap to a democratic and decentralised Syria." However, to what degree that vision is shared by Damascus is unclear.

During their period of de facto independence from Damascus, the Kurds have established a political system distinct from the rest of the country, which they are unlikely to surrender without a fight. In Kurdish areas, towns and villages are administered by democratic bodies, with women guaranteed equal access to the secular machinery of local government. This contrasts sharply with Damascus’s centralised vision, an indication that some friction is likely ahead.

Commenting on the likelihood of any political agreement, irrespective of constitutional discussions, Noah Bonsey, a senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group told Reuters: "It’s hard to see how they will reach more substantive agreement in the coming months because you just have a huge gap between the two sides on what the future of this region should look like.”

Negotiations between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds will likely be followed closely in Turkey, which previously launched two incursions into Syria’s north to safeguard its southern border against Kurdish interference and is currently entrenched within the rebel-held de-escalation zone of Idlib.

For the last few years, the remaining defenders of rebel-held strongholds have been offered the choice of relocating to the northern province of Idlib or fighting government-aligned forces to the end. All have chosen Idlib, creating a rebel stronghold that is jihadist in character and theocratic in governance. From this pool, Turkey has pulled many of its recruits to fight Kurdish forces under the broad banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

While much of Idlib remains under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, (HTS) a former al-Qaeda affiliate that appears to have a working relationship with Turkey, Ankara appears intent on consolidating its gains elsewhere. Writing on Twitter yesterday, analyst Charles Lister reported the merging of two of HTS’s rival groups under the banner of the Turkish-sponsored National Liberation Front, a further bid by Turkey to deter any regime advance into the province.

In the face of resistance from both the Kurds and Idlib and its backers, Damascus must again look to its old alliances to shore up power. “Assad is counting on Russia and Iran to support the new constitution,” said Andrew Parasiliti of the RAND Corporation. “It is hard to see the constitution as a new start with Assad in power, but it can’t be dismissed outright either. There is no chance of Syrian Kurds getting independence, but there will likely be some local autonomy under the rubric of decentralisation. But all spokes lead back to Damascus.”