The actors in the Syrian crisis reduced the solution to the Constitutional Committee in what they considered a translation of the outputs of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015, which gave UN approval to a plan calling for a ceasefire in Syria and holding talks between the parties to the conflict, within a timetable of approximately two years to form a unity government, or what is called a "transitional governing body", and then hold parliamentary and presidential elections.

The formation of the Constitutional Committee in its current form came after a framework agreement was reached in Sochi, Russia, in January 2018, with the aim of drafting a new Syrian constitution, or introducing amendments into the current constitution that was amended during the crisis and is not recognised by the opposition. The Committee is composed of 150 members, representing in parallel the regime, the opposition, and representatives of the civil society. A small committee of 45 members has been formed to attend the discussion rounds, and decisions are taken in the Committee through voting, subject to the approval of 75 percent of the Committee members. The delegation of the Syrian regime is headed by Ahmed al-Kuzbari, and the opposition delegation is headed by Hadi Al-Bahra.

Wasted rounds

Since its inception, the Committee held four rounds, starting from the first round in November 2019 until the last round at the end of November 2020. The Committee could not come up with tangible outcomes in terms of drafting the constitution. Those rounds were consumed in discussing issues unrelated to the issues for which the Committee was formed.

Despite the existence of a permanent schedule for the meetings, the parties, specifically the party representing the regime, would deviate from the agenda of the meeting, which often caused the failure of the meeting and the withdrawal of the opposition delegation. Furthermore, no timetable was set for holding the Committee's rounds. Holding each round required the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen to tour Syria and the countries affected by the conflict to reconvene the Committee's meetings.

What has been achieved in the four rounds does not exceed agreement on a code of conduct regarding the discipline that should characterise the dealings of the Committee members, and even that was not adhered to, considering that the four rounds witnessed mutual protests against the violations of the opposite party.

Methodology of negotiation

The negotiation methodology adopted by the Syrian regime and the opposition reveals the reasons for the Committee's failure to fulfill its mission of reaching an agreed-upon constitution text. The regime’s approach is based on obstruction and flooding the Committee with the discussion of issues that have nothing to do with the primary task, with the aim of disrupting reaching a new constitution or amending the current constitution before the presidential elections scheduled for the summer of 2021, considering that the regime seeks to conduct them according to the current constitution with the aim of enabling Bashar al-Assad to win a new presidential term that is not covered by the new constitution.

This approach is met with the support of the regime's allies, namely Russia and Iran, which want Assad to remain in power. The opposition circles believe that the Constitutional Committee, since its inception, was a Russian tool to undermine UN resolutions on Syria, especially Resolution 2254, and waste time to prevent the formation of a transitional governing body, until the regime reaches what it calls the presidential entitlement.

On the other hand, the opposition adopts a method of reaction instead of formulating a clear strategy in the negotiations. Sometimes, it goes along with the regime in discussing what the latter is proposing in order to embarrass it in front of public opinion, or takes caution in order to avoid falling into the traps set by the regime’s delegation in the Committee’s work schedules. The opposition believes that the fate of the negotiations would eventually be determined by the will of the major regional and international powers that oversee the Syrian issue, and that the ongoing negotiations are only a timeout until those powers reach final understandings on the Syrian issue.

Clash of proposals and conflict of priorities

In the context of the two parties' negotiating strategies, the fourth round witnessed the eruption of what could be called a “conflict of papers and proposals”. The regime’s delegation proposed adding the issues of refugees and the economic blockade to the agenda of the Committee’s meetings. The delegation’s head Ahmed al-Kuzbari submittted to the UN Envoy’s team a document that included more hard-line and detailed positions compared to previous government papers, including its demand that representatives of the opposition and the civil society "reject terrorist acts", including "economic terrorism"; the equation between Daesh (ISIS) and the Muslim Brotherhood; and "the condemnation of the foreign occupation by Turkey, Israel and the US".  The document also escalated against the Kurdish Autonomous Administration by rejecting "any separatist agenda".

For its part, the opposition delegation objected to the inclusion of those issues in the Committee’s agenda on the grounds that they fall outside the scope of its duties and have nothing to do with the constitution. However, it ultimately sought to contain those proposals and integrate them into the constitution, albeit as appendices or addenda related to the country’s extraordinary current situation, such as the establishment of a general authority for detainees' affairs and another for transitional justice, that is themes that would remain in the constitution, but not permanently, as items and articles pertaining to the de facto situation.

The conflicting priorities of the parties to the Constitutional Committee were reflected in the ongoing negotiations regarding the completion of a constitution for the country that would constitute a locomotive for dragging the remaining issues of dispute to the track of solution. While the regime's priorities at this stage focus on ending the economic blockade and rehabilitating the regime, by focusing on issues of combating terrorism and expelling foreign powers from Syria, with the aim of eliminating the war crime charges that hinder the world's openness to it, the opposition focuses on the issues of detainees, the political solution, and the living conditions of the displaced and refugees.

Based on this conflict, the various issues are viewed from a political perspective, and are evaluated in terms of the possibility of being employed for the benefit of either side. While the Syrian opposition believes that the meetings of the Constitutional Committee are merely an implementation of Resolution 2254, which constitutes a road map towards reaching a political transition, given that it is a binding resolution for all parties so that there could be no solution except through the implementation of its provisions, the regime, backed by Russia, considers that those meetings are merely an intra-Syrian dialogue, governed by changes and circumstances, and that the situation (especially in terms of field developments and control on the ground) has changed significantly compared to what was the case when the Resolution was issued five years ago, and it is illogical not to take those facts into consideration.

On the other hand, the regime believes that the Committee’s meetings constitute an opportunity for it to restore its national image by raising issues of a national and humanitarian nature, such as the issue of the “return of refugees” and “lifting the economic blockade,” to show that the opposition is the one behind the refugee crisis, and that foreign countries are responsible for the difficult economic conditions suffered by those who remained inside Syria.

For its part, the opposition believes that the framework of the Constitutional Committee's mandate is well defined, and that the nature of work is limited to establishing the basic principles of the future form of the state and the type of political system. As for the other issues, they can only be discussed in terms of transitional provisions that would be considered within the issues that do not normally exist in a country’s permanent constitution. Therefore, raising the issues of the Syrian crisis during the negotiations is only meant to shuffle the cards and as an attempt to show the opposition as isolated from reality by discussing theoretical issues that do not interest the Syrian citizen in the light of the grinding crises he/she is experiencing.

Conclusion

Setting the date for the fifth round to be held at the end of January 2021 indicates that the various parties are waiting for President Joe Biden's administration to take over power in the US to learn his orientations towards the Syrian issue. Doubtlessly, the Syrian negotiating parties largely bet on the factor of international developments. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that they would reach consensual solutions among themselves. It is also inconceivable that the meetings of the Constitutional Committee would lead to a solution to the Syrian crisis in the light of the final contradictions which cannot be resolved without outside intervention.

Russia and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have utilised the negotiations of the Constitutional Committee, which take place within an open time frame, to abort Resolution 2245. Indeed, they have succeeded after having imposed new terms of reference for negotiations, namely the so-called Sochi Principles. They believe that they are capable of imposing the solution they envisage through the imposition of facts and driving the civil society to despair, even as the opposition is distracted between its platforms and parties, its lack of a specific vision, and its weak capability to impose its terms.

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