Constitutional Committee Meetings Hinge on Pandemic as Damascus Warns of ‘Traps’

Bashar Assad delivers a speech before the People's Council on Wednesday. (AP)
Bashar Assad delivers a speech before the People's Council on Wednesday. (AP)

Constitutional Committee Meetings Hinge on Pandemic as Damascus Warns of ‘Traps’

Bashar Assad delivers a speech before the People's Council on Wednesday. (AP)
Bashar Assad delivers a speech before the People's Council on Wednesday. (AP)

The meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, with the participation of the government, opposition negotiations committee and civil society, are expected to be held in Geneva on August 24, if the coronavirus pandemic allows it. The meetings will be a chance to test the latest positions of the concerned parties after a long absence and after the announcement of the Astana course “guarantors” that they are the “real sponsors” of the constitutional process in Syria. Another significant development, was president Bashar Assad’s labeling as “idle talk” Washington and Ankara’s “meddling” in political initiatives.

United Nations envoy Geir Pedersen is still cautious about hosting the Constitutional Committee meetings, leaving his options open until he has guarantees that they can be held and until he senses that Damascus and the opposition are ready to engage in “constructive” dialogue to amend the constitution through the Syrians and the Syrian leadership. Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, on the other hand, have decided to dispatch the deputies of their foreign ministers to hold a tripartite meeting for Syrian “guarantors/players” on the eve of the Syrian “rivals” meeting.

American transitional phase
This is not the first time that three countries attempt to undermine the achievements of the constitutional path. The foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran had previously sent their foreign ministers to Geneva to present their vision of “Syrian constitutional reform”. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had put a stop to such moves. Now, however, the scene is different. The United States is preoccupied with other priorities: the pursuit and implementation of the Caesar Act that it is using to apply “maximum pressure” to punish Damascus and pressure Moscow. It is also busy with President Donald Trump nearing the end of his term.

In theory, the representatives of the Syrian government, opposition and civil society are expected to meet to discuss constitutional reform. These meetings had come to a halt in the past due to disputes over the agenda. The government wants to begin with reaching an agreement on “national foundations” that are linked to rejecting “occupations” and terrorism. The opposition wants to kick off talks by discussing the constitution and its principles. Fortunately, Pedersen was able to reach an understanding on the agenda thanks to Moscow’s intervention.

The agenda will now discuss the basic foundations for the procedures of the Constitutional Committee in order to hold discussions on national foundations and principles. The great vagueness of this agenda will be put to the test in Geneva.

Russia’s pledge to convince Damascus to keep its delegation in Geneva for more than two weeks for serious talks will also be put to the test. This issue was the main focus of discussions the Russian president's special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, held during his latest visit to Damascus.

‘Idle talk and traps’
Ahead of the talks, Assad set the political standard by speaking about “attempts to topple the nation, overthrow sovereignty, divide the people and deal a blow to constitutional institutions.” Addressing the People's Council (parliament), he said these attempts will be “thwarted by the determination of the people to commit to constitutional deadlines.” Assad also cited the people’s participation in recent parliamentary elections as a form of defense of the constitution. He was referring to the 2012 constitution, which the government is clinging on to. The most it will accept is “discussing” the constitution, not its “amendment” or “drafting of a new one.”

Assad dedicated his speech to the internal Syrian situation, such as corruption and American sanctions. At the end, he addressed the political situation, saying: “Despite the honest efforts of our friends in Iraq and Russia” in pushing forward the Constitutional Committee meetings, “they have turned into idle political talk due to the meddling of the US and its agent, Turkey, and their representatives at the dialogue.”

“We still believe in the need to support political initiatives, even though we know that the other side is bound by money and the orders of their real masters outside the nation,” Assad continued. “Political initiatives are aimed at luring us into traps they have set up to achieve what they could not through terrorism. In their dreams.”

Washington is forging ahead with its implementation of the Caesar Act whereby it is expected to release a new batch of sanctions. Its first batch, released in June, targeted 39 individuals and entities, including Assad and his wife Asma. In July, 14 more targets were added, including Assad’s son, Hafez, 18.

During his speech, Assad also referred to his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the business tycoon who has dramatically fallen from grace with the regime. “The fight against corruption has intensified in recent years,” said Assad. “We are continuing in restoring looted public funds through legal means and institutions. No one is above the law. Reform is not about revenge or settling scores.”

Through Syria’s 10-year war, Makhlouf had helped Assad evade Western sanctions on fuel and other goods vital to his military campaign. He was part of the president’s inner circle, accused by the United States of exploiting his proximity to power to enrich himself “at the expense of ordinary Syrians.” His business empire spanned telecoms, energy, real estate and hotels, looming large over Syria’s economy.

But now the two men are now locked in a battle over money. Security forces had recently raided Makhlouf’s telecoms company, Syriatel, in a tax dispute and detained dozens of employees for questioning.

The rift between Assad and Makhlouf burst into public view on April 30, when Makhlouf posted the first of three videos to social media. In the videos, he said the government had asked him to step down from his companies, including Syriatel.

On May 19, 2020, the finance ministry froze the assets of Makhlouf, his wife and an unspecified number of his at least two children, according to a document reviewed by Reuters. It also ordered that overseas assets should be seized “to guarantee payment of dues to the telecom regulatory authority.” The government has said Syriatel owes the telecom regulator 134 billion Syrian pounds ($60 million) relating to the terms of the company’s license. Makhlouf insisted in one of his social media posts that he stands ready to pay.

A separate order banned Makhlouf from obtaining government contracts for five years.

Climate Change Imperils Drought-Stricken Morocco’s Cereal Farmers and Its Food Supply

 A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)
A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)

Climate Change Imperils Drought-Stricken Morocco’s Cereal Farmers and Its Food Supply

 A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)
A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)

Golden fields of wheat no longer produce the bounty they once did in Morocco. A six-year drought has imperiled the country's entire agriculture sector, including farmers who grow cereals and grains used to feed humans and livestock.

The North African nation projects this year's harvest will be smaller than last year in both volume and acreage, putting farmers out of work and requiring more imports and government subsidies to prevent the price of staples like flour from rising for everyday consumers.

"In the past, we used to have a bounty — a lot of wheat. But during the last seven or eight years, the harvest has been very low because of the drought," said Al Housni Belhoussni, a small-scale farmer who has long tilled fields outside of the city of Kenitra.

Belhoussni's plight is familiar to grain farmers throughout the world confronting a hotter and drier future. Climate change is imperiling the food supply and shrinking the annual yields of cereals that dominate diets around the world — wheat, rice, maize and barley.

In North Africa, among the regions thought of as most vulnerable to climate change, delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.

In Morocco, where cereals account for most of the farmed land and agriculture employs the majority of workers in rural regions, the drought is wreaking havoc and touching off major changes that will transform the makeup of the economy. It has forced some to leave their fields fallow. It has also made the areas they do elect to cultivate less productive, producing far fewer sacks of wheat to sell than they once did.

In response, the government has announced restrictions on water use in urban areas — including on public baths and car washes — and in rural ones, where water going to farms has been rationed.

"The late rains during the autumn season affected the agriculture campaign. This year, only the spring rains, especially during the month of March, managed to rescue the crops," said Abdelkrim Naaman, the chairman of Nalsya. The organization has advised farmers on seeding, irrigation and drought mitigation as less rain falls and less water flows through Morocco's rivers.

The Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year's wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons (3.1 billion kilograms), far less than last year's 6.1 million tons (5.5 billion kilograms) — a yield that was still considered low. The amount of land seeded has dramatically shrunk as well, from 14,170 square miles (36,700 square kilometers) to 9,540 square miles (24,700 square kilometers).

Such a drop constitutes a crisis, said Driss Aissaoui, an analyst and former member of the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture.

"When we say crisis, this means that you have to import more," he said. "We are in a country where drought has become a structural issue."

Leaning more on imports means the government will have to continue subsidizing prices to ensure households and livestock farmers can afford dietary staples for their families and flocks, said Rachid Benali, the chairman of the farming lobby COMADER.

The country imported nearly 2.5 million tons of common wheat between January and June. However, such a solution may have an expiration date, particularly because Morocco's primary source of wheat, France, is facing shrinking harvests as well.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Morocco as the world's sixth-largest wheat importer this year, between Türkiye and Bangladesh, which both have much bigger populations.

"Morocco has known droughts like this and in some cases known droughts that las longer than 10 years. But the problem, this time especially, is climate change," Benali said.