US still absent as Syrian Constitutional Committee sees light

Plenty of work needs to be done before the constitutional committee bears fruit.
Saturday 21/09/2019
A win for Damascus? Syria’s President Bashar Assad (L) chairs the central committee of the ruling Baath party in Damascus, last October 7. (AFP)
A win for Damascus? Syria’s President Bashar Assad (L) chairs the central committee of the ruling Baath party in Damascus, last October 7. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The Syrian Constitutional Committee will finally see the light following a breakthrough meeting involving the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran. No date has been finalised as to when and how the committee will start work or when it will finish, however.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 called for “constitutional reforms,” rather than a new constitution, as an objective in Syria. The government delegation wants the committee to amend the charter of 2012, rather than develop a new document. Opposition hardliners say the political process has been dwarfed from presidential decapitation and creation of a transitional government into “constitutional amendments.”

Stripped of the vast territory that was once under their control, however, they are in an extremely weak negotiating position, especially considering what seems to be high harmony between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That harmony cost them strategic territory such as Aleppo, East Ghouta, Daraa and Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib countryside.

An agreement reached by the three leaders stated that the committee would include 150 people: 50 for the government, 50 for the opposition and 50 for independents representing civil society. The government and opposition delegations would co-chair the committee and decisions would be made based on two-thirds majority.

A delay was caused by Damascus objecting to six names on the civil society list, saying that although dubbed independents, they were pro-opposition at heart, chosen for the task by former UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The same argument was voiced by the opposition, only in reverse. It has been agreed that instead of the six names in question, Damascus will select four and the opposition two for the civil society list.

Turkey voiced objections to one person specified by the Syrian government, Daham Hadi al-Jarba, an Arab tribal chief in north-eastern Syria who co-chairs Jazira canton with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara said he is too close to the Kurds and wanted him replaced. That detail was overruled at the presidential summit.

Last year, Russian lawmakers presented a blueprint for what they envisioned could be a draft constitution, leaking it through various media outlets to monitor public reaction. Whether it is to be considered at the actual talks is yet to be seen, given strong objections from both the government and opposition.

The Russian draft dropped Article 3 of the present constitution, which says the religion of the president is Islam. This clause has been included in every Syrian charter since 1920.

Islamists in the opposition were furious, demanding its restoration, saying in addition to being religiously incorrect for a Christian to lead a Muslim country, this would serve the objectives of the Syrian government, which markets itself as a protector of minorities.

Ba’athists were unhappy with the Russian draft because it changed the name of the country from “Syrian Arab Republic” to “Syrian Republic,” saying that appeased and empowered non-Arabs in Syria, such as Turkmen, Circassians and, more specifically, Kurds. They were also furious with stripping the office of the president of some rights, including naming the prime minister and governor of the central bank or leading weekly cabinet meetings.

The opposition was equally unsatisfied, saying those rights were purely ceremonial, so long as the judiciary, security services and army remained vested in the presidency. The government team was also unhappy with a clause calling for local parliaments that elect a second house to complement the central parliament in Damascus, saying this was a thinly veiled form of federalism. In 2018, they flatly rejected it and insisted they would continue to do so.

The Russian draft also said that a sitting president can only serve two consecutive seven-year terms in office but with no reverse effect. Meaning President Bashar Assad can nominate himself for two consecutive terms once Syrians go to the polls in 2021. If the talks drag on until that date and a constitution is only passed after the elections, Assad could get another 14 years in office after the end of his fourth term in 2028.

Plenty of work needs to be done before the constitutional committee bears fruit. For starters, a decision needs to be made on whether the committee will go for “constitutional reforms,” as mentioned in Security Council Resolution 2254, or a new constitution.

Second, a timetable needs to be formulated, with a monitoring authority that has clear terms of reference. Will it be the UN-mandated Geneva process, which first called for the constitutional committee? Or will it be the Astana Process, which hoards Syrian affairs in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran, reducing the Arab League and United Nations to mere observers in Syria’s future.

The Americans are present only by name in the first process and totally absent from the second, seemingly uninterested in such micro-affairs, which have been left to the Russians to sort out. This is music to the ears of Erdogan, Putin and Rohani.

Prominent Syria expert David Lesch told The Arab Weekly: “The crux of the situation is whether or not a watered down constitutional committee can produce a workable document that meets the very little of what the Syrian government wants to give up in terms of any semblance of a more decentralised political system while meeting the minimum demands of an opposition bereft of any leverage.” Lesch, a university professor, added: “The Russians want this badly in order to politically consecrate what they already view as a military victory in Syria.”

What kind of constitution emerges for Syria is not on US President Donald Trump’s priorities, no more than ever with his own election year around the corner. He has constantly been more interested in eradicating the Islamic State, empowering the Kurds and clipping Iran’s wings in Syria. Whether Assad stays or leaves is of no interest to him and he is willing to settle for any endgame, even if it’s tailor-made to fit the liking of Vladimir Putin.