Middle East

Geneva talks: Is Syria’s new constitution a mission (im-)possible?

Geir Otto Pedersen had chosen surprisingly upfront words, given the diplomatic balancing act of the past five days at the Syrian Constitutional Committee: “We can’t continue like this, the week has been a disappointment,” the head of the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria concluded on Friday evening.

In other words, the fifth round of Syrian constitutional talks ended without any tangible achievement and without a date for a further meeting.

For over a year now, representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s government, representatives of the opposition, and members of Syrian civil society have been trying to hash out a new constitution to pave the way for UN-supervised elections this year. But progress has been tortuous.

“I set out a few things I thought we should be able to achieve before we started this meeting, and I’m afraid we did not manage to achieve these things,” Pedersen said, before adding that he will be briefing the UN Security Council (UNSC) on February 9 after which he will share more details.

End due to lack of true engagement

On Friday, Pedersen hinted that the meetings lacked “true engagement” from the Syrian government’s delegation after a comprehensive proposal had been rejected by the government’s representatives (though it was accepted by the opposition). However, any rejection doesn’t come as a surprise given the political stance of Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party in regard to the upcoming elections and the revision of the constitution. Assad has been Syria’s president since 2000, and while he hasn’t yet confirmed that he will be running for the presidency again, it is widely undoubted that he would like to serve yet another term.

The next formal elections in Syria are slated for April 16 to May 16, 2021. However, the United States and several Western allies have previously accused Assad of deliberately delaying the draft of a new constitution in order to avoid UN-supervised elections as called for by the UNSC. Assad, in turn, has argued that he refuses to wait for a revised constitution as he believes it will take years to come forward.

Paving the committee’s way

Initially, the Syrian Constitutional Committee under UN supervision had been agreed on in January 2018 at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference. The 150-member committee, consisting of 50 representatives of the Syrian regime (which is an ally of Russia), 50 members of the opposition (which is an ally of Turkey) and 50 members of the civil society (including many women) has been trying to set the ground for a new constitution.

For last week’s fifth round, the number of participants had been cut down to 45, forming a “Small Body” with 15 representatives each. However, at the insistence of Turkey, Syria’s Autonomous Administration, which controls northern and eastern Syria, hadn’t been included. According to local media, the Autonomous Administration will therefore not see the committee’s work as binding.

Final stop of the roadmap to peace?

 In the beginning of the meetings more than a year ago, Pedersen had said that reforming the constitution was the first step towards a political process that would lead to UN-supervised elections under UN resolution 2254. This resolution states that free and fair elections should meet “the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians – including members of the diaspora – eligible to participate.

For now, it seems that this journey has ended in a dead end. At the same time, the situation of the remaining population of 11 million is dire and it seems that Syria will also remain – in 2021 – the home of the largest refugee crisis in the world.

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