Three political blocs in the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee have approached United Nations envoy Geir Pedersen, Russia and regional countries to address Turkey’s influence in the body and Constitutional Committee, as well as Ankara’s hegemony over political decisions in their country.
Pedersen is meanwhile putting the finishing touches to the fifth round of the Constitutional Committee, which will for the first time discuss the essence of the war-torn country’s constitution. The panel is set to meet on Monday.
Previous committee meetings have been marred with divisions between the regime and opposition delegations. The former has constantly pursued discussions on “national principles”, while the latter has constantly urged the need to discuss the “introduction of the constitution and its principles.”
The envoy briefed on Wednesday the UN Security Council on the latest developments in Syria. He addressed the economic crisis stifling Syria and the military situation with the involvement of five militaries (Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran and Israel) in the conflict. Paramount is the suffering of millions of Syrians, he added.
Ten years of death, displacement, destruction and destitution “on a massive scale”, have left millions of Syrians grappling with “deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity and lack of hope for the future,” Pedersen said.
The envoy painted a grim picture of what lies ahead in 2021. He cited the UN humanitarian office, OCHA, in saying that more than eight in 10 people are living in poverty, and the World Food Program (WFP) has assessed that 9.3 million are food insecure. And with rising inflation and fuel shortages, he expected that the authorities will be unable to provide basic services and goods. The coronavirus pandemic is also continuing to take its toll.
“Syrians are suffering,” Pedersen said, speaking out against economic sanctions that would worsen the plight of Syrians. “A torn society faces further unraveling of its social fabric, sowing the seeds for more suffering and even more instability.”
“A slow tsunami” is now “crashing across Syria,” he warned.
Pedersen added, however, that there are some positive signs, noting that the past ten months have been the calmest since the conflict began in 2011. “Frontlines have barely shifted,” he noted.
“But this is a fragile calm. It could break down at any moment. This past month again showed us this,” he added, citing an abrupt and significant escalation around Ain Issa in northeastern Syria, an intensification of airstrikes attributed to Israel, continuous attacks by ISIS in the east and central area, and mutual shelling and airstrikes in and around the Idlib province. Civilians continue to be killed in crossfire and IED attacks while facing dangers ranging “from instability, arbitrary detention and abduction, to criminality and the activities of UN-listed terrorist groups,” said the envoy.
“The political process is not as yet delivering real changes in Syrian’s lives nor a real vision for the future”, he said, pointing to the need for confidence-building steps, such as unhindered humanitarian access, information on and access to detainees and a nationwide ceasefire.
He went on to point out that the conflict is highly internationalized, with five foreign armies active in Syria. He called for “more serious and cooperative international diplomacy” and urged states to build on common interests, including stability, counter-terrorism and preventing further conflict that “could unlock genuine progress and could chart a safe and secure path out of this crisis for all Syrians”.
After all, despite their differences, key states are committed to Security Council resolution 2254 and they have common interests — including on issues such as stability, containing terrorism, the safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees, and preventing further conflict. “We must be able to build on these together,” he emphasized.
Elections and constitution
Presidential elections are set for July. Discussions have been held between various influential countries, with Russia showing enthusiasm for the polls and the United States and Europe seemingly divided over how to deal with them. Pedersen, meanwhile, seems to have made up his mind that he will not tackle them because they are not within the jurisdiction of resolution 2254. Free and fair parliamentary elections, as envisaged in resolution 2254, however, which should be held after the presidential polls, “seem far into the future,” he remarked.
Pedersen said that depending on COVID, the Constitutional Committee will convene in Geneva next week. “We need to ensure that the Committee begins to move from ‘preparing’ a constitutional reform to ‘drafting’ one, as it is mandated to do,” he urged.
This coming session of the Committee is “very important”, he said, stressing that the time has come for the co-chairs to establish effective and operational working methods, so that the meetings are better organized and more focused. The Committee must begin to move from preparing a constitutional reform to drafting one. The co-chairs can and should reach agreement on a workplan for future meetings with clear agendas and topics, and there needs to be more urgency in the process. “These are reasonable goals, but I cannot assure the Security Council that they will be met this time,” he said, appealing to the co-chairs and to all members of the Committee to be ready to move to a new phase of work during the upcoming session.
Not all western countries agree to this assessment. Some European countries have been calling for abandoning the Constitutional Committee. In fact, they have even criticized Pedersen for giving the Committee much more importance than it deserves. These countries are seeking to open new options to implement resolution 2254, such as addressing the political transition, the issue prisoners held in regime-run jails, establishing a neutral environment and carrying out confidence-building measures.
These demands have eased at the moment as these countries await US President Joe Biden to unveil his team that would handle the Syrian file.
While Pedersen was preoccupied with achieving a breakthrough in the Constitutional Committee, he was taken by surprise by opposition “platforms” from within the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). The Cairo and Moscow platforms and the coordination committee – the three main components of the HNC that represents the opposition at the Constitutional Committee – sent him a letter to urge him to help resolve a dispute from within the panel itself.
The dispute revolves around the representation of independent figures, who were elected to the panel during the Riyadh conference in late 2019. Independents occupy eight seats in the HNC. The dispute also revolves around the representation of the Cairo platform at the committee. A number of proposals were made throughout the year to resolve the issue of independents, including allowing old and new members of the HNC and Constitutional Committee to share seats. The proposals did little to end differences and the other bloc, meaning the coalition, continued to insist on its positions.
The HNC is comprised of 36 members: eight from the coalition, four from each of the Moscow and Cairo platforms, five from the coordination committee, seven from military factions, eight independents and one Kurdish member, who belongs to the coalition. The political dispute centers on the balance of representatives which is perceived to be leaning towards a certain Syrian bloc that enjoys regional support.
The political blocs in the HNC, meaning the Moscow and Cairo platforms and coordination committee, accuse Ankara of controlling the committee or allege that the committee is loyal to Turkey. To counter Ankara’s hold, the political blocs are attempting to introduce new members to the committee to achieve quorum in the elections mechanism in order to prevent one side from controlling decision-making power.
These three blocs have turned to Pedersen to intervene and resolve the dispute in line with resolution 2254 that stipulates that the envoy should ensure the unity of opposition forces. The envoy, however, is unlikely to interfere in such technical issues because he is currently preoccupied with holding the Constitutional Committee meetings next week.