Demands for constitutional reform date back to the early days of the Syrian conflict. The following three initiatives preceded the Constitutional Committee (initiated in January 2018).
The Geneva Communiqué was a joint declaration put forward on 30 June 2012 by the Action Group for Syria (AGS). The AGS, initiated by then UN Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan, involved representatives from the League of Arab States, the European Union, China, Russia, Turkey and the US. Later known as Geneva I, the meeting constituted the first major UN-sponsored conference on the Syrian conflict. In addition to a sustained cessation of armed violence, the Communiqué called for the formation of a national unity government that would oversee a political transition process. It also envisaged a new constitutional order that would be put to public vote and prepare the ground for free and fair elections. However, the Communiqué was never implemented due to escalating fighting and the absence of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for any ceasefire, as well as unbridgeable differences regarding President Assad’s future role. It nevertheless remained an important document with a high degree of international legitimacy on which following initiatives would build.
To this day, UNSCR 2254 serves as the main point of reference for international diplomacy on the Syrian conflict. The unanimously adopted resolution was negotiated within the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that started meeting in Vienna in October 2015. The ISSG centred on key stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France, the UK and the US, as well as Russia and Iran. Iran’s participation was a novelty facilitated by the cautious rapprochement between Iran and the US in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was signed in July 2015. Until then, the US had vetoed Iranian official involvement at international level. Only four weeks before the meetings in Vienna kicked off, the Russian Air Force started bombing opposition forces and civilians throughout Syria. Against this background, Moscow was eager to engage in an internationally legitimised political process to add its diplomatic weight to the power projection of its direct military intervention on the side of the GoS. Adopted in December 2015, UNSCR 2254 reconfirmed the need to fully implement the Geneva Communiqué from 2012 and laid out a roadmap for political transition under UN auspices that stipulated free and fair elections to be held within 18 months. It furthermore called for the drafting of a new constitution.
Despite the fact that UNSCR 2254 urged for a nationwide ceasefire to enable the political process, Syrian warplanes targeted an influential opposition leader shortly after the resolution was adopted on 18 December. The following week, Zahran Alloush, leader of the Islamist faction Jaysh al-Islam, was killed by an airstrike in a suburb of Damascus. Alloush and his faction had been involved in the formation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), an umbrella body that was meant to represent Syria’s opposition in the UN-sponsored negotiations scheduled for January 2016. As a respected leader with a military background and political ambitions, he was representative of the kind of opposition that the GoS and its Russian allies considered a real threat. Alloush’s death set the trend for a year of military escalation and political stalemate.
On 23 January 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran came together for a summit in Astana (now Nur-Sultan), the capital of Kazakhstan, marking the start of the Astana Process. Building on the negotiations on the withdrawal of armed opposition groups from besieged East Aleppo, the three governments met to discuss a nationwide ceasefire they had declared on 28 December 2016. The UN Security Council endorsed the Astana Process as an important contribution to the UN-led track that was struggling to facilitate negotiations between the conflict parties. In fact, the Astana Process was about to replace the UN-led track in Geneva as the main venue and catalyst for diplomacy on the Syrian conflict.
Three days after the Astana summit, Russia hosted a group of opposition representatives friendly to it in Moscow. Both of the Syrian opposition’s most relevant bodies, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), refused to attend. Nevertheless, Russia portrayed the meeting as a step towards a settlement of the conflict and presented a draft for a new constitution. By suggesting to drop the attribution “'Arab’ from the country’s official name, limiting the President’s mandate to a single seven-year term, and creating a new body called the '“Assembly of Regions’ that would restrict the President’s power, the Russian draft envisioned a more inclusive and less centralised Syrian state. But Russia had violated the one principle shared by all Syrian parties: It tried to impose a prefabricated constitution instead of respecting a Syrian-led process, which both the GoS and all opposition groups demanded. Facing fury from all sides, the Russians backed down and never again suggested a draft. While the initiative failed, it nevertheless helped Russia to frame the Astana/Sochi process as a broad approach to finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict instead of serving only as a trilateral platform to balance its direct interests with those of Iran and Turkey.
Meanwhile, the pro-Assad coalition did not itself adhere to the ceasefire it had declared. Instead, it took advantage of the momentum created by the fall of East Aleppo as major opposition stronghold, which had a demoralising effect on opposition armed groups. Maintaining psychological and military pressure looked like a promising strategy. From January 2017, GoS forces launched attacks on opposition-controlled areas around Damascus, such as the Barada Valley. They also shelled East Ghouta, the stronghold of Jaysh al-Islam, whose political leader Mohammed Alloush was a chief negotiator on behalf of the Syrian opposition in Astana. Russia and its allies in Damascus justified the escalation by claiming to legitimately target Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the former Al-Nusra Front, which was excluded from the ceasefire. But JFS’s presence in East Ghouta was rather limited. While its several hundred fighters had no offensive capabilities, the pro-Assad coalition’s shelling of civilian areas prompted East Ghouta’s armed opposition groups to return fire. It was the act of systematically ignoring ceasefire agreements under the pretext of attacking terrorist groups that thwarted any efforts to reduce the fighting. This loophole was implemented in all following agreements.