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

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

Friday, 14 August, 2020 - 06:30
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.

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