“You are neither my friend nor my brother, you are just a colleague,” said one of the members of the Damascus delegation to a representative from the “other party” during the meetings of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva, which concluded on Friday evening.
These verbal comments do not reflect the depth of the gap between the parties to the talks. This rift, however, was highlighted in the texts of the counter proposals, which were obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat.
A document submitted by the head of the pro-government delegation, Ahmed al-Kuzbari, stated that a person, who violates the political system of governance, by using force, threats, incitement, or by provoking aggression on the territory of the state, communicating with hostile parties and dealing with any external party in any way that harms national interests, shall be convicted of high treason.
In another document, the pro-government delegation said: “The law shall criminalize anyone, who calls for the consolidation of subnational identities that affect the unity and security of society.”
It added: “The Constitution preserves cultural diversity within the framework of national unity,” pointing out that harming the army is “a crime punishable by law.”
UN Envoy Geir Pedersen
The seventh round of the Constitutional Committee meetings ended on Friday. While UN envoy Geir Pedersen did not announce a new date for the next round, the Damascus delegation proposed that they take place at the end of May.
Russian presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, US envoy Ethan Goldrich, his Turkish counterpart Sedat Unal and other Western officials accompanied the negotiations, which were held within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Pedersen, who as usual avoided a press conference, said in a statement: “The Committee members in the first four days discussed draft constitutional texts on four basic constitutional principles: Basics of Governance, submitted by nominees of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, State Identity, submitted by some of the civil society nominees, State Symbols, submitted by nominees of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and Regulation and Functions of Public Authorities, submitted by nominees of the Syrian Negotiations Commission.”
He continued: “On the fifth day, in line with the agreement, the delegations were expected to submit revisions to reflect the content of the discussions during the previous four days. All delegations offered at least some revisions to some of the texts presented. Some of these embodied amendments indicating an attempt to reflect the content of the discussions and narrow differences. Others contained no changes.”
On the Agreement
The node in the previous rounds was related to the fifth day of the session, as the Damascus delegation refused to reach joint formulations with the delegation of the Negotiations Commission headed by Hadi al-Bahra. This position forced Pedersen to shuffle between Moscow, Damascus and other capitals, until an understanding was reached that the counter-papers would be exchanged on the fifth day.
Some suggested that this meant formulating common texts, while Damascus interpreted it as a request to submit written comments, based on its reading of Pedersen’s invitation letter to the seventh round of talks.
Thus, 15 papers were submitted in response to four documents presented over the four days of the seventh round. These papers, the texts of which were obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, revealed the depth of the gap between the parties.
Al-Kuzbari said in one of the documents: “Our delegation followed all the discussions that took place during the third day of the meeting on the principle of state symbols, as well as the proposals submitted by other parties about it. Our delegation expresses its dissatisfaction with any of the discussions or proposals presented to amend it, and affirms its adherence to the aforementioned principle, which states the following:
“The symbols of the Syrian Arab Republic represent higher national and well-established cultural values, and express its history, heritage and unity, and they are all unchangeable...
1- The flag of the Syrian Arab Republic consists of three colors: red, white and black. It has two green stars, each with five prongs. The flag has a rectangular shape, its width is two-thirds of its length, and consists of three rectangles of equal dimensions along the length of the flag, the top in red, the middle in white, and the bottom in black. The two stars are in the middle of the white rectangle.
2- “Humat ad-Diyar” is the national anthem of the Syrian Arab Republic.
3- Arabic is the official language of the Syrian Arab Republic.
4- The Syrian lira is the currency of the Syrian Arab Republic and the unit of measurement for its money.
5- The emblem of the Syrian Arab Republic is an Arab shield on which the national flag of the Syrian Arab Republic is engraved in its colors. The shield embraces an eagle holding in its claws a ribbon on which the “Syrian Arab Republic” is written in the Kufic script. At the bottom of the shield are two ears of wheat. The eagle, the ribbon, and the two ears of wheat shall be in golden color, and the writing and wing lines shall be in a light brown color.”
The delegation of the Negotiations Commission presented a document pertaining to state symbols, which read: “The history of the Syrian flag: it appears to the observer that it was subjected to alteration and modification several times, due to events or changes in the state, which, in the view of those concerned, required an alteration or modification, or a return to the adoption of another flag for a reason related to the context of historical events."
Since the Constitution is a text that has a spirit… there is a mutual influence relationship between the constitution and reality, a dialectical relationship represented in the impact of the political reality on the written texts, as well as the adaptation of the texts of the constitution to political developments…
We, in Syria, currently have two flags among the set of historical flags that are approved by millions of Syrians. A group believes that the independence flag (22/02/1932) represent them, while another group states that it is represented by the flag of unity (1/1/1958), which was adopted by [late Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In our estimation, the revolution, which began with peaceful demonstrations since March 2011, has developed into what we all know. These events and circumstances deserve to be a reason to demand changing the flag again by more than half of the Syrian population.
Looking at the contexts of the Syrian constitutions, we find that the flag, slogan and anthem were referred to a special law that clarifies them:
- Article 6 of the 1950 Constitution states: “the emblem and national anthem of the Republic shall be designated by law.”
- In the 1973 Constitution, Article 6 states: “The law shall specify the state’s flag, emblem, anthem, and the provisions pertaining to each of them.”
The delegation of the Negotiations Commission added: “We are going through a historical stage that calls for change. As it is decided historically and in reality, there is no constitution that remains the same. Rather, it can vary with the change in the circumstances of the social contract that originally established it. We are undoubtedly facing the creation of a new social contract.”
The document of the Damascus delegation stated: “Our delegation believes that there is no independent principle called "the identity of the state" in the constitutional sense, but principles or articles in the constitution that reflect this identity, however, to interact with the propositions and discussions that took place, we present the following modified vision":
“1 - Arabism is the basis, the historical origin and the unifying identity of all the people of the region, as well as the unifying framework for all the citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic, culturally, socially, civilly and humanly. It is not a choice governed by an interest or a goal, but rather an affiliation that is broader than being limited to race, religion, sect, language or interest.
2- The Arabic language is the official language of the Syrian Arab Republic. The state, with all its bodies, especially the educational, cultural and media institutions, guarantees its promotion and consolidation as one of the foundations of its national identity.
3 - The Syrian people, with their diverse social fabric, are an integral part of the Arab nation. They are proud of their Arab affiliation and are proud of their nation and its eternal civilizational message throughout history, in the face of all colonial, separatist and terrorist projects aimed at the disintegration of states.
4- The law criminalizes anyone who calls for the consolidation of subnational identities that affect the unity and security of society, and the constitution protects cultural diversity within the framework of national unity.”
Basics of Governance
The proposal submitted by the Negotiations Commission on Monday stated that the “system of governance in the state is republican based on the rule of law, respect for human dignity and the will of the people, and a full commitment to building a free, just and solidarity society.”
It added that sovereignty must be exercised by the people through the means of voting established in the constitution, “allowing them to freely and democratically express their will to choose who exercises power on their behalf, at the national and local levels, within the framework of political pluralism and the peaceful transfer of power.”
The document said that political parties are “an expression of political pluralism.” “Parties are established and they exercise their activities freely within the framework of the laws regulating their work, in a manner that does not conflict with the provisions of the Constitution.”
Al-Kuzbari presented a counter-paper, in which he stated: “Since the title presented by the other party, “Basics of Governance”, does not constitute a constitutional principle, and our delegation made this clear during the meetings, we present the following modified vision, based on a conceptual, not constitutional standpoint:
The Constitution preserves the political system of governance in the state. Any violation of it in any illegitimate way, especially through the use of force, threat of force, incitement, or encouragement of aggression against the state’s territory, communication with hostile parties, and dealing with any external party in any way that harms national interests, shall be condemned on charges of high treason.
“Loyalty to the state, its institutions, its Syrian Arab army and its armed forces is the duty of every citizen. Any intimidation against it, undermining its prestige or its role, or trying to change the structure of state institutions with the aim of weakening it, is a crime punishable by law.
“Political parties express political pluralism and contribute to the formation of the popular will. Any political activity outside the framework of licensed parties is prohibited by law. The creation and financing of parties and organizations is governed by national laws and regulations. Establishing parties, organizations or groupings on the basis of religious, sectarian, regional, ethnic or foreign allegiance is prohibited.”
In response to another paper, entitled, the Work of Institutions, the Damascus delegation presented a document, stating that the title was not a constitutional principle, and thus could not be discussed “before clearly defining the tasks and duties of the legislative, executive and judicial authorities, and the bodies and institutions emanating from them.”
Tension and Calm
The discussions that were taking place under Russian, American, regional and Western “censorship” saw tense and calm moments, amid an atmosphere that lacked warmth. Participants from Damascus stressed their “refusal of friendship or brotherhood.” There were calls to “focus on the richness of discussion and the evolvement of ideas, even with the lack of willingness to translate the progress of the dialogue into final proposals.”
Pedersen emphasized this last point, as he stated that he became “more optimistic at the end of the last session,” where he noticed a greater desire for discussion, dialogue and hearing opinions.
But he also pointed out that the gap remained wide and that the Committee should be governed by a sense of compromise and constructive engagement aimed at reaching a general agreement of its members, in line with the Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure.
Pedersen said that he would soon seek, after consulting with the two co-chairs, to set the date of the next round in May, and that he would communicate with the government and the Negotiations Commission to develop more practical proposals to improve the process.
“Two-and-a-half years after the launching of the Constitutional Committee – an event that took nearly two years to bring about – there is a clear need for this commitment to be embodied in the Committee’s work, so that substantive issues begin to be bridged, and that the Committee begins to move substantively forward on its mandate to prepare and draft for popular approval a constitutional reform,” the UN envoy stated.