The committee functions in service of Assad and his backers, which have insidiously utilized the talks as an avenue to pursue their maximalist position regarding a settlement to the conflict.
On October 22, the UN concluded the sixth round of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva. UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, the fourth diplomat to occupy this position after the first three resigned in frustration, called the outcome of the talks a “big disappointment” and lamented the inability of the participants to find common grounds.
Consisting of 150 members and 45 drafters, whose delegates are distributed equally across the regime of Syria's Bashar al Assad, the Syrian Negotiations Committee representing the opposition, and pre-approved civil society members, the committee, which is designed in principle to provide a platform for the parties to jointly reform and amend the Syrian charter, constitutes the framework through which the Syrian peace process currently exists.
Theoretically, the talks comply with UN Resolution 2254, which among other things, calls for a political transition that culminates in free and fair elections, held under UN supervision “to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability.” Syrian state diplomats have expressed their support for this initiative.
Since its inaugural session in October 2019, however, the Constitutional Committee has amounted to little more than a diplomatic avenue through which the Assad regime can secure its position as the sole benefactor of the negotiating process. It represents merely the latest political tool at the disposal of the Assad regime, which has for years managed to exploit diplomatic bodies to resist change while endlessly stalling under the guise of negotiating surrounding Syria’s political future.
For two years, the regime has paid lip service to the notion of engaging in legitimate talks within the framework of the Constitutional Committee. Yet, during this time, its forces, supported by Iran (and at times Russia), have crystallized a pattern of hard power engagement within Syria in which limited provocations-turned-military-assaults are periodically followed by ceasefires intended to consolidate control over newly recaptured pockets of territory.
On the Idlib front, these limited offensives have often culminated in de-escalation agreements brokered by Moscow and negotiated with its Turkish counterparts, permitting the former to redefine demarcation lines in service of the regime with each additional truce. At times, this is made possible by bombing campaigns specifically intended to induce population displacement towards the Turkish border, exploiting Ankara’s apprehensions over further refugee flows as political leverage.
In Daraa, Iran-aligned forces within the Syrian military, such as the Fourth Armoured Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, have, alongside Hezbollah and other pro-government militias, long sought to undermine Russian-sponsored hybrid security configurations to secure uncontested authority across the province. Over the summer, the latest round of fighting between this camp and opposition pockets in Daraa al-Balad, during which residential neighbourhoods were subjected to a siege and indiscriminate shelling by the former, resulted in a deal brokered by Moscow that saw the submission of rebels and an expansion of regime power in the south.
Though the political and security dynamics in northern and southern Syria vary significantly, the end goal is ultimately the same: the complete reacquisition of Syrian territory (although in reality, the regime and its sponsors currently lack the resources to do so). In light of the pro-Assad camp’s inability to make sweeping gains, these offensives have enabled Damascus to gradually broaden its reach against the backdrop of negotiations, which it intentionally undermines in order to delay the talks and thus obstruct the possibility that the committee will make genuine progress regarding Syria’s political future. Assad’s presidency, having been primarily responsible for uprooting half of the country’s population, would surely not survive the political outcome of the process – democratic elections that are free, fair, transparent, and crucially, open for diaspora participation – if allowed, without obstruction, to run its course.
Assad has everything to gain and nothing to lose
To the pro-Assad axis, the peace process is therefore intended neither to provide a just peace nor be a meaningful process. It represents the latest chapter of the Oslofication of Syria’s peace talks, deliberately meant to alter the material reality within the country to one that leaves the other parties void of any leverage to use in furthering their positions – all while new ‘facts on the ground’ effectively transform negotiations into an exercise in political futility.
Moreover, it forces the other parties to accept the framework set by the regime as a prerequisite for its official involvement. One need not look beyond the main tenets of the proposed draft – combating “terrorism and extremism,” preserving “Syrian sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity,” the coercive forces, and the “rule of law” – to ascertain that its focus has been superimposed on the committee by the regime, which wishes to securitize the framing of the peace settlement in hope of returning to a rebranded form of Syria’s oppressive pre-2011 status quo. The drafting of elements of the constitution related to so-called terrorism and extremism, notably, is to be composed by governmental delegates, who are sure to insist on a definition formulated by the security apparatus – one broad enough to constitute the basis of a legal justification for its ongoing repression of all forms of dissent.
The regime, therefore, has everything to gain and nothing to lose by indefinitely prolonging the talks. This is especially true given its gradual reassertion of military control over the majority of the country, the increasingly precarious position of US-backed, Kurdish-led forces (who control swathes of territory in the north and northeast), and Assad’s accelerating rehabilitation into the region’s Arab bloc. Simply put, the regime has no incentive to act in good faith or act productively.
While the one arguable exception to this may be the desire to see sanctions under the Caesar Act lifted, the Joe Biden administration’s recent approval of the Egypt-Jordan gas deal – which signalled the US’ willingness to loosen stipulations attached to the sanction’s framework – has likely been interpreted by Damascus as an indication that its Arab neighbours can lobby Washington to ease even more restrictions as its isolation becomes less and less tenable. For a number of reasons, including their desire to lure Assad away from his Iranian allies, Arab states have re-engaged Damascus and are unlikely to re-embrace the opposition in any impactful way.
The proverbial writing is on the wall: the international community is broadly uninterested in Syrian peace talks. Many of the leaders once publicly resolute in their demand that Assad depart have reversed course, thereby relinquishing the need for an opposition through which they can exert pressure on Assad, as well as lay a stake to the outcome of the negotiating process. By partaking in the Constitutional Committee, both the opposition and the (non-aligned) civil society delegates are ultimately, if unwittingly, serving the interests of the regime in Damascus – not least by legitimizing its role through the very act of recognition in addition to validating its securitized discourse.
However, should they boycott the process, the decision would surely be decried by their backers, in addition to being framed by the pro-regime camp as evidence of their reluctance to commit to peace. They have the unenviable task of being forced to negotiate with a party that is unconcerned with peace and to operate within parameters defined by regional and international players that champion their aspirations only when it suits them.
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