The first round of the meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee was marked with seriousness and the proceedings were concluded in Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday under the auspices of the United Nations.
The convening of the committee came as an implementation of one of the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), acting as a gateway to political transition in Syria through drafting a new constitution, ensuring a secure and neutral environment for a referendum on a draft constitution, and the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections based on a new constitution.
Remarkably, all the parties accepted the invitation by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, to participate in the first round of talks. The invitation underlined the need for a comprehensive and modern reform of the Syrian constitution that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people for a civil, democratic and pluralistic state and engaging with Pedersen on the work of the Committee to ensure its success as well as international interaction and pressure after a stall in the talks for years.
The letter sent to the President of the Security Council by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, on Sept. 26 was attached with the terms of reference and the basic elements of the rules of procedure of the Constitutional Committee.
The letter stated that both the "Government of the Syrian Arab Republic (Syrian Regime) and the Syrian Negotiation Commission (the opposition coalition)" agreed to that regulation.
In addition, the letter stated that the Special Envoy would facilitate the work of the Committee, “in fulfillment of its mandate under Security Council resolution 2254”, which is the basis for the start of the work of the Constitutional Committee between the Syrian Negotiation Commission and the Syrian government .
It is not a secret that all Syrian and international parties recognized the outcomes of the Syrian Dialogue Conference which took place in Sochi, Russia, in early 2018 under the auspices of the guarantors of the Astana process, namely: Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Among the outcomes was the approval of the 12 general principles regarded as the basis of the new constitution which the Syrian Negotiation Commission has worked on in coordination with the UN for a long time.
All parties also agreed on the rules of procedure and code of conduct, established by the UN during the previous session, in coordination with the Syrian Negotiation Commission, the government and representatives of civil society organizations, which act as the regulators of the Committee's work and outputs.
The Opposition’s positive performance
The performance of the opposition in the first round was dynamic, positive and politically tactical. The performance was accompanied by votes against the start of the work of the Constitutional Committee.
Many Syrians fear that the committee will be the only path to a solution in Syria, ignoring the rest of issues such as the transitional rule, elections and terrorism, which could lead to further keep the Bashar al-Assad regime in power. Their fears may materialize if the other issues are not addressed.
Split within the civil society
The civil society group, which is a member of the Constitutional Committee, was divided into two parts, one close to the negotiation committee while the other to the Syrian government.
The alignment was evident through the interventions of the two camps, where the demands of the first camp focused on the necessity of drafting a new constitution, achieving a political transition, releasing the detainees, and stopping military operations against civilians in Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces.
On the other hand, the demands of the second camp focused on reforms to the 2012 Constitution, and not to delve deeper into the Constitution, putting it in congruence with the demands of the regime.
In response to the opposition, the interventions of members of the government delegation focused on "slogans" of the modernity of the 2012 constitution, its superiority over other world charters, greetings to the Syrian army as the “protector of the homeland", and demanding the transfer of the committee's work to Damascus.
Furthermore, the government delegation insisted that it was supported by the government but did not represent it, and tried to waste the time during the sessions to define the political and legal articles of the constitution. The delegation also complained that they could not work for more than two hours a day, until it was agreed on four working hours a day, including a lunch break.
All of the above mentioned summarize the challenges and obstacles to the work of the committee. In order to enhance and smooth negotiations, the delegation of the Negotiation Commission submitted a proposal for an agenda and a working paper containing the ideas and proposals suggested by the 150 members of the committee. In contrast, the government delegation did not submit any papers, while the civil society delegation only discussed the paper presented by the negotiating body.
Moreover, the request by delegation of the Negotiation Commission that the work of the Drafting Committee be three continuous weeks and a one-week break, was rejected by the government delegation which only agreed to one working week in Geneva.
Need for seriousness and international pressure
As seen from the above, there are differences between the delegations of the Negotiation Commission and the government.
For the success of the work of the Constitutional Committee, the following must be achieved:
- The regime should demonstrate seriousness in the talks and should stop referring to the delegation of the Syrian Negotiation Commission as the other party. It should also stop labeling them as "terrorists" and "stooges" while sitting with them to write the constitution for new Syria.
- Increased international pressure on the Syrian government (regime) delegation from the UN, the guarantors of the Astana talks namely: Russia, Turkey and Iran, and the international mini-group which includes the Western and Arab countries, led by the U.S.
- To initiate the implementation of confidence-building measures, and to work immediately on the release of detainees and to reveal the fate of the absentees, which are mainly found in UN Resolution 2254, of which the Constitutional Commission is part of.
- The commencement of working on other fields which include: the Transitional Governing Body, Elections and Terrorism as requested earlier by the Negotiation Commission through an official note delivered to the UN on Nov. 7.
Consequently, the next round of the meetings of the Constitutional Committee will be held on Nov. 25. It is expected that the Committee works in accordance with the previous four points. This will likely lead to success and progress in the political process, hence, increasing the chances of bringing an end to the suffering of all Syrians, particularly those living under bombardment and refugees in other countries.
*Ibrahim Rage contributed to this report from Ankara
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[The writer is the former secretary general of the Syrian Opposition Coalition]