Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a summit in Sochi, Russia, in October 2017. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a summit in Sochi, Russia, in October 2017. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov

A constitutional committee is expected to be formed at the next round of Syrian peace talks in Astana on November 28-29 to start work early next year. The announcement itself is seen as a positive development, potentially ending more than two years of fruitless negotiations.  Russian President Vladimir Putin – one of the three guarantors of the Astana process – wants a constitution tailor-made to his liking, one that he can sell in the international community and market as a major breakthrough for Russian diplomacy.

A decision was made in October to speed up the formation of the committee after the leaders of Russia, Turkey, France and Germany announced it as one of their objectives at a summit in Istanbul. One week later, Putin sent his special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev to Damascus, tasked with “removing obstacles still in the way of forming this committee.”

These obstacles are many, starting with who would actually join the committee, its mandate, and its expected date of completion. Putin has pushed for the process to be born either out of the Sochi Conference that his government hosted last January or via the Astana talks, which are also co-chaired by Iran and Turkey.

The United States is absent from both tracks.

In previous talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, Washington attended as a silent observer. This time, the Americans have announced they will not be present at the 11th round of Syrian peace talks, neither obstructing the process, nor endorsing it, but actually giving Putin the space he needs to hammer out an endgame to his liking – one that makes no mention of regime change but in return, clips Iranian wings in Syria.

Previously, then-US secretary of state John Kerry had mentioned August 2016 as a deadline for drafting a new Syrian constitution.

Having failed to host a second round at Sochi, the Russians are now putting their full weight behind the Astana process, wanting the constitutional committee to start from there. Then, if and when Geneva resumes, Moscow will seek a stamp of approval from the United Nations. 

Transition off the table

Creating the committee is one thing but getting it to work is another. Both sides of the Syrian conflict are not too enthusiastic about starting the constitutional process, for very different reasons.

Sweeping battlefield developments over the past 10 months have greatly weakened the opposition, while equally empowering the Syrian government. Damascus is no longer in a conciliatory mood, agreeing to engage only with Russia-friendly opposition figures.

As for the Saudi-backed Syrian National Coalition, they have been stripped of most of their military and political tools, waging an uphill battle against a superior enemy.

The once-consequential “Friends of Syria” have more or less abandoned their allies, while the United States has ended military support for the armed rebels. Saudi Arabia is busy with the Khashoggi affair while Qatar has been quietly distancing itself from Syria since its feud started with Riyadh last summer.

The once-consequential ‘Friends of Syria’ have more or less abandoned their allies, while the United States has ended military support for the armed rebels

Gone is all mention of President Bashar al-Assad’s departure, and of a “Transitional Government Body” to rule the country with “full executive” powers, as mentioned in Geneva II.

The Turks have managed to push through a list of 50 names from the opposition earmarked to join the committee. They are to sit side-by-side with 50 delegates from the government side and 50 from civil society. The civil-society list, however, was compiled by outgoing UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura only to be flatly rejected by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem. The Syrian government insists that the envoy’s role, and that of his successor Geir Pedersen, is restricted to “facilitator” rather than “decision-maker.”

Damascus insists the 50 names from civil society should be agreed upon at Astana, arguing that many of its names slated as independent are actually hardcore members of the opposition. 

Whose blueprint? 

Also problematic is the issue of Kurdish participation. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has called for their proper representation, raising eyebrows in Ankara, where any Syrian Kurdish groups – save those under the umbrella of the opposition – are looped into a terrorist basket. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is particularly sensitive when it comes to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The Turkish leader is preparing for a major offensive to drive the SDF out of northeastern regions of Syria before the end of this year. He would never approve their membership on the committee, and given his tremendous influence in the Astana process, nobody can – or will – persuade him to bend.

Then comes the difficult part.

Damascus claims that the committee is mandated only to review the present charter, which was penned in 2012, and not to draft a new one. The opposition wants full authority to come up with a new document – one that restricts presidential powers and terms. If born out of Astana, where Russia and Iran have the upper hand, that would be impossible.

Damascus is also asking for two-thirds representation on the committee via its 50 names and half of those earmarked for civil society, insisting as well on the chairmanship of the committee.

The opposition rejects using the present constitution as a blueprint, because it leaves control of the security services and armed forces in the hands of the presidency and maintains seven-year presidential terms, renewable twice after the constitution goes into effect. Should the process drag into 2021, when Assad’s current term ends, he could stay in power for an additional 14 years — until 2035.

The next round of Astana talks will determine how many of these obstacles remain standing and gauge Russian seriousness at making a public announcement of success before Christmas. 

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