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3 Basic Facts on Illusion of Syria Constitutional Reform

3 Basic Facts on Illusion of Syria Constitutional Reform

Tuesday, 1 October, 2019 - 12:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

I like the Arabic expression: “the mountain rumbled and delivered a mouse.” The United Nations Special Envoy announced in Damascus on September 23 the agreement on the composition of a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution. Notice that the announcement was in Damascus, not Geneva. I do not mean to criticize Mr. Pederson. He accepted a job no one wanted; he is the fourth United Nations special envoy for the Syria crisis.

My country, the United States, owes him thanks for saving our face. Because of the stubborn Pederson, the Americans and the international community can pretend there is a political process in Syria. But let us remember the difference between imagination and reality. The September 23 announcement does not change three basic facts in Syria.

The most important fact is that there is no rule of law in the Syrian state. The security forces, especially the four intelligence services – Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, General Intelligence and Political Security – control the country for President Assad. They ignore the constitution. For example, although Article 22 of the current constitution promises that the state will protect the health of citizens and provide the means of treatment, the Syrian state has destroyed many hospitals, as the United Nations itself acknowledges.

Article 29 of the constitution promises that education is a right of the citizen, but the Syrian air force has bombed many schools. Article 42 states that citizens have the right to freely express their views. Instead, tens of thousands who oppose the government, or even only whose family relatives oppose the government, have been arrested and killed without judicial process.

Article 43 promises freedom of the press. How then do we explain the government announcement in April of this year that journalist Ali Othman, whom the security forces arrested in 2012, died in detention in 2013? The security forces murdered him and tens of thousands of other prisoners despite the promises in the current constitution. We do not forget the pictures of thousands of victims brought out by a secret police defector in 2013. With or without a new constitution, there is no rule of law in Syria and no accountability for the intelligence services and army.

And the second fact is that security state will not change or reform itself. The Assad government controls Damascus and all the other major cities of Syria. War and economic sanctions are destroying the Syrian middle class, but the Syrian government is staying. Does anyone really think that the Bashar and his family, or the family of intelligence chief Deeb Zaytoun is suffering?

If you have any hope that that the Syrian state will reform, remember that its intelligence agencies are arresting people who signed reconciliation agreements in Daraa and Rif Dimashq. Assad has won three elections already and he will run again in 2021. How can the United Nations, or the international community, think that this security state will hold free and fair elections? Will Air Force intelligence take orders from a United Nations election adviser who probably won’t even speak Arabic? Let us be serious.

The third fact that prevents the constitution committee from achieving a political solution to Syria’s crisis is the absence of representatives from the eastern part of Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish PYD party and its Syrian Democratic Forces.

It is worth mentioning here that the United States could not influence the composition of the constitution committee that Pederson negotiated with Damascus, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran. The Americans are surprised to find themselves isolated. They thought that because the SDF controls some small oilfields, Assad and Pederson would come to them.

They still don’t understand that economics is not the key factor in a war for existence. But the Americans are creating a bigger risk to peace in Syria over the long-term. They are providing a military umbrella for a mini-state to emerge in eastern Syria. That mini-state still refuses an agreement with Assad which means eventually there will be war between them after the Americans depart.

This PYD-led mini-state claims it is a part of Syria, but it rejects the transfer of millions of Syrian refugees to its territory. The PYD worries about refugees changing the demographic composition of eastern Syria. The PYD understanding is correct, but it is a fact that the PYD is Kurdish more than it is Syrian. The constitution committee won’t resolve that identity issue or be able to impose decentralization on an Assad government that has military superiority on the ground and believes in centralization.

We can thank the United Nations for its brave efforts but we should have pity on the Syrians whom the United Nations and the international community cannot help.

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