In October 2019, the UN launched the Syrian Constitutional Committee, composed of 150 Syrians, divided equally between Syrian government-backed officials, various opposition groups, and Syrian Civil Society. The committee’s fifth - and latest - meeting happened on January 25th . Despite the UN Special Envoy’s urging to finally begin “drafting” a constitution, this latest Geneva round resulted in a stalemate. Now, calls for abandoning the process abound from both Syrians and western capitals that have invested politically and financially in the committee.
The countries supporting the United Nations’ efforts now have two options in front of them: abort the committee’s activity immediately or threaten to do so if it continues to bear no fruit, or create a new diplomatic mechanism – either in addition to or after halting the work of the committee - that addresses the core mandates of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. They should also internally, as well as publicly, acknowledge Russia’s failure to deliver on the constitutional committee, a process it insisted on sponsoring.
UNSCR 2254’s offers a series of steps, all intended to move actors towards a political settlement. They include: a genuine political transition, imposing a nation-wide ceasefire, eradicating terrorists, facilitating safe return of refugees, facilitating humanitarian aid, ceasing attacks on civilians, releasing detainees, and of course, drafting a constitution and conducting free and fair elections. Given that the committee’s work has resulted in none of these steps, it is becoming increasingly clear that, alone, the committee has become a distraction and not an actual step forward in the Syrian context.
In order to successfully complete his mission, United Nations Special Envoy
for Syria, Geir Pedersen, needs to rely on actors committed to delivering
the objectives of the UNSCR 2254. Continuing a fruitless process damages
the credibility of the United Nations, which – due to lack of
consensus at the UN Security Council – struggles immensely to play an
effective role in the Syrian conflict. For this reason, creating a more
effective diplomatic mechanism – in addition to or even without the
constitutional committee – is an urgent matter. It will also prevent
the Astana Group
- a military agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, disconnected from
UNSCR 2254 - from becoming the only viable agreement since 2017.
The Constitutional Committee Was Never a Holistic Solution
The constitutional committee’s limitations were obvious from the outset, as was its inability to solve the root of Syria’s uprising - including the government’s arbitrary arrests, killing of dissidents, heavy-handed governance, displacement of millions, and unwillingness to strike political compromises with its citizens - which require full, not partial, execution of UNSCR 2254. But this is not the first time that subjects other than the core issues Syrian conflict take precedence. For example, in 2015, many in the international community, including the United States, prioritized eradication of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This was a clear example of an outgrowth, not the source, of Syria’s political and security breakdown capturing the undivided attention of the international community.
Today, similarly, the international community invested in the
constitutional committee, believing it would produce a constitution prior
to UN-monitored presidential elections this summer. Rather than focus on
the most pressing issues in UNSCR 2254, including the cessation of
hostilities, provision of aid throughout the country, and return of
refugees, the attention turned to an objective that can only be
successfully accomplished in parallel to a genuine political settlement.
Focusing singularly on a constitution in a country where constitutionalism
is disregarded altogether has proven futile. Constitutions can make a
difference even in non-democratic contexts. But that requires an actor that
takes stock of all stakeholders, including its citizens, and is willing to
bargain to remain in power. The Syrian government, by contrast, has refused
to bargain and opted to use force every time.
Russia’s Repeated Failure
Russia is the primary sponsor and advocate of the constitutional committee process. In fact, it was Russian sponsorship that convinced many Syrian and non-Syrians, skeptical of adopting the committee as UNSCR 2254’s first attempt to achieve a political settlement, to back the process.
The thinking was that If the UN could engage the Syrian government on topics that were less directly threatening to its grip on power, it would be convinced, gradually, to make more critical concessions down the line. Or so the logic went. The process, coupled with an uptick in both American and European sanctions on the Syrian government and affiliates, provided an opportunity for genuine pressure to accompany their demands.
Russia’s ability to press the Assad government to attend was initially perceived as a positive step. For the first time, government-backed, opposition, and civil society members were dialoguing, in the same room. The attendance of the civil society group in particular was a novelty, the first time they were included in any formal UN-supported negotiation process.
It quickly became clear, however, that the government’s “concessions” would end at mere attendance. During the five negotiation rounds, both the Syrian government and Russia insisted the talks must take place “in Syria, among only Syrians,” inviting committee members “to come to Damascus.” This was, of course, an impossibility, given that Assad’s opponents would have disappeared upon arrival. It soon became clear that the Syrian government’s participation was a ruse -- rather than discuss substantive issues or constitutional drafting, its representatives spent their time threatening to revoke the citizenship of “disloyal” opposition members.
The constitutional committee process finally exposed the divergence in how Moscow and the rest of the Security Council defined “progress.” The constitutional committee’s failure to produce results finally belied the assumption - held by the United States and its allies - that the road to Damascus ran through Moscow.
Some argue that Russia is unwilling to deliver and therefore continues to indefinitely delay any progress on the constitutional committee’s work. Others say Russia’s influence over Damascus and its ability to secure genuine concessions from Assad are illusory.
Either way, Moscow’s role has been fruitless.
Moscow seeks to both keep the international community engaged through this process, while simultaneously preventing it from making any genuine progress on the political file. It has also become increasingly clear that Moscow prefers to limit any real negotiations to the Astana platform with Turkey and Iran, where objectives are much narrower. But a diplomatic, not military platform, is a prerequisite to stabilizing Syria and reaching a political settlement under UNSCR 2254.
Time to Plan Honestly
Calls by critics to halt the committee’s works are increasingly attractive. The constitutional committee failed to advance its primary purpose of facilitating a political compromise in the country. But ending support for the process, without a clear diplomatic alternative, will not achieve the objectives of UNSCR 2254, or the Syrian people’s interests, either.
With the advent of a new U.S. administration in Washington committed to diplomatic engagement and human rights, the international community has an opportunity to signal to the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, that satisfying UNSCR 2254 is the only path forward. Absent a political mechanism, the only solution becomes a military solution, which brings continued untold suffering on the Syrian people. If the international community has an interest in ensuring that doesn’t happen, then they need to craft an alternative, diplomatic mechanism to the one already in place. Creative diplomacy should not be abandoned just yet. But ten years into this brutal conflict, it’s time to recognize that the work of the constitutional committee has fallen far short of what UNSCR 2254 requires.