Akram Bunni

The Constitutional Council and its Viability

As soon as United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen announced that the sixth round of Constitutional Committee meetings would begin in Geneva on Oct.18, questions emerged about the viability of this committee and the need for prominent Syrian opposition and civil society figures continuing to take part in them.

These questions were linked to the bitter mockery of the work of the committee, which has failed to make any progress over the five previous rounds, whether it comes to general principles or the drafting of the particular constitutional text. There was not even a clear general approach for how the dialogue would be organized or outcomes would be guaranteed.

Two years ago, there was hope in the role that would be played by the international community, particularly the United States, in supporting the Constitutional Committee and allowing it to break the chronic deadlock and make inroads that would allow them to alleviate Syrians’ suffering.

At the time, it seemed that taking part in these talks was the only remaining opportunity to make political progress after the regime and its allies closed the door to other solutions. However, much has happened since then, and things are very different today, especially with what could be called the White House’s gradual withdrawal from the so-called Greater Middle East, which has been reeling because of the project to change the region, to make it new and expansive, announced by the US administration and Condoleezza Rice at the start of the millennium.

What we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan is perhaps among the outcomes of this withdrawal, as are the clear signals of how disinterested the new administration in the White House is with the region’s problems generally and the Syrian crisis particularly. It is happy to focus on reviving the nuclear deal signed with Iran, meaning that the Syrian opposition and civil society have lost the only side that had supported them and has the capacity to influence the political process.

Making matters worse, Washington is flexibly applying the Caesar Act. It is overlooking the growing desire among Arab and Western powers to rehabilitate the Syrian regime and normalize times with it, though through economic activity. That has granted Moscow more opportunities to benefit from the US and international community’s withdrawal and shape Syria’s future as it sees fit. This is true especially after Russia had made strides in rehabilitating the regime and allowing it to impose its authority over large swaths of the country. It has allowed the regime to expel the opposition from the city of Daraa and its countryside, paved the way for a military solution in northern Syria, which would see the armed groups’ areas besieged and their influence weakened, and it has pressured the Kurdish forces in the east to adjust their stance.

The Kremlin has also pleaded with regional alliance and various conferences to impose a political solution in accordance with its vision and through steps that would enable it to translate its military victory into gains on the ground in such a way that would help it appeal to the West and the international community by overplaying some of the meager state institution reforms that do not change anything about the regime’s structure or the pillars that ensure its survival. This strategy is aligned with Tehran’s policy of refusing to make any major concessions or allow for the emergence of a political solution that would weaken the regime. This is especially true today, as Iran can take the opportunity presented by the US withdrawal from the region to fill the void and invest in the White House’s desperation to make nice with it and have the nuclear deal negotiations succeed.

Two years ago, taking part in the Constitutional Committee meeting could also have been justified by pointing to the pressure that it appeared Moscow had been exerting to force the Syrian regime to take part in political negotiations. However, there are no indications that Moscow wants to address, even in its own way, the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Indeed, there are no signs it wants to end the fighting and destruction, ensure the safe return of refugees and displaced persons, hold free and fair elections under UN supervision, or allow for the emergence of a transitional government that would lead the country’s recovery from the ramifications of the violence.

The truth is that we are faced with a regime that has a long history of dominating and oppressing society to subordinate it, spread fear and terror in the hearts of its people, and distance them from politics and taking part in managing their affairs. This regime is assured that the path to maintaining control is not complying with the people’s demands, addressing their problems and winning them over, but by continuing to terrorize, oppress, and isolate them.

Experience tells us that the Syrian authorities have resorted to all available means to kill and torment the Syrian people, denied all the obvious reasons for their revolution, and worked tirelessly to ensure the failure of the various political solutions. Moreover, the regime refused, when its crisis had been at its worst, to make meager concessions; so, it obviously won’t do so today after having made gains on the ground.

It has also felt the flexibility that is reducing its isolation and the weight of the pressure exerted on it, meaning that the authorities’ old approach will be intensified and strengthened. With the same logic of violence and domination, it will work to impose its authority on society and retrieve its control over what remains of the areas outside its control, thus rejecting any political progress, regardless of how meager it may appear.

That is true even for agreeing on a new constitution. Most of its articles are shaped by the regime’s whims and desires, especially given the fears among prominent regime figures of being questioned and held accountable. These figures know that a political process would entail steps that would inevitably expose their responsibility for the destruction, deaths, imprisonment, corruption, and horrifying decline in living standards.

Logic also compels us to say that trustworthy figures within the Constitutional Committee ought to take a brave stance. Whether they are in the camp of the authorities, opposition or civil society, they should expose the emptiness of this committee and the futility of its meetings. They should do so not only to take a stance for the history books, condemn the regime and its allies’ recalcitrance, leave them perplexed over what to do, and wipe their hands of the process and avoid becoming false witnesses to what is going on.

They also ought to do so to liberate themselves from others’ dictates and demonstrate the national character of their task and role. Maybe, with this stance, despite the difficulties and complexities, they could create the pressure mechanism that Special Envoy Geir Pedersen was looking for when he announced the date of the new round of Constitutional Council meetings. The time has come to push for the comprehensive implementation of UN Security Council 2254 and draft a decent constitution. One that stipulates the transfer of power and is aligned with the principles of citizenship, justice and human rights. At the very least, it should make progress on the question of detainees, the kidnapped and the missing. That would send a message that peace is possible, so to speak, to all Syrians!