In October 2019, after nearly two years of preparatory negotiations, Syria’s Constitutional Committee was officially launched in Geneva. However, its relatively promising kick-off soon turned into a familiar pattern of mutual verbal attacks between the Government of Syria (GoS) and the opposition. A second round of meetings scheduled for late November collapsed before it even began. The GoS delegation left on the first day under protest that its legitimate demands – which in reality broke the protocol agreed for the Constitutional Committee – had been ignored. Two weeks later, the GoS, supported by Russia and Iran, launched a major military offensive against opposition-held areas in Syria’s north-west that displaced close to a million civilians. Since then, the Constitutional Committee’s work has been on hold. A third round of meetings is scheduled for 24 August 2020. However, meaningful discussions and achieving actual results remain unlikely under the current circumstances.
In the roughly two years since Russia initiated the Constitutional Committee – framed as a step towards a political solution to the Syrian conflict – the pro-Assad coalition has retaken most opposition-held territory in Syria by force. While military developments on the ground seem to be detached from the Constitutional process, both are actually interconnected. This report explores the dynamics between the Constitutional process and simultaneous military developments. Specifically, it identifies four phases of the Constitutional Committee that unfolded between January 2018 and April 2020 and outlines how the pro-Assad coalition undermined the Committee’s opposition and civil society bodies in Geneva through military escalation. It also discusses how the Committee and the political legitimacy that it conferred upon the Russian-dominated Astana process served as a political cover to pursue the GoS’s desired military solution to the Syrian conflict and how the accompanying violence caused polarisation within the Committee itself.
Despite the current stalemate in the Committee due to the GoS refusing to engage in a political process, the Committee could serve as a platform for mediation with the potential to create constructive dynamics between various Syrian stakeholders and keep alive the idea of a political transition that was envisioned in UNSCR 2254.
Revitalising this potential requires direct confrontation with the GoS and Russia because the GoS’ approach to the conflict is based on Russia’s military backing and the division of the spoils of war in order to retain the loyalty of its henchmen and local allies. In other words, political, financial and technical assistance to the Committee itself are not enough to open a window of opportunity. Instead, a European-Turkish-led humanitarian intervention in Syria’s north-west that changes the balance of forces must be considered. Such a humanitarian intervention could protect the roughly 3 million civilians cornered in greater Idlib and also help in creating the leverage needed to revitalise the Committee.