Twenty-two months passed between Russia's initiative to form the Constitutional Committee in its Black Sea resort of Sochi in January 2018 and the Committee's collapse in November 2019. This period can be subdivided into four phases.
The idea to form the Constitutional Committee was originally put forward by the Russian government. On 30 January 2018, Russia opened what it called the ‘Congress of the Syrian national dialogue’ in its Black Sea resort of Sochi. In reality, relevant parts of Syria’s opposition – including the Syrian Negotiation Committee (SNC), the body that represented Syria’s opposition in the UN-sponsored Geneva process – either boycotted the summit or were not invited. Russia, however, released a joint statement that claimed to represent all segments of Syrian society. It requested the UN to assist the Constitutional Committee’s work and support the process in accordance with UNSCR 2254. The UN welcomed the initiative as a chance to revitalise the Geneva process. Hours after the announcement, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura expressed his gratitude towards Russia.
During the following months, de Mistura was busy meeting the Astana guarantors, European governments, regional stakeholders and US representatives to gather support for the Constitutional Committee. But de Mistura’s success in mobilising support for the initiative could not conceal the fact that there was significant dissent regarding its nature and procedures. Central points of contention were the formation and composition of the Constitutional Committee. At first, the idea was that the UN would have the mandate to choose delegates, but this was quickly discarded in the face of Russian and Turkish objections. A proposed compromise was that Russia and Iran would pick 50 delegates for the GoS, Turkey would pick 50 delegates for the opposition and the UN would choose 50 delegates for civil society. However, final agreement could not be reached.
Russia’s diplomatic initiative coincided with a military escalation inside Syria. In the week after the National Dialogue Congress on 29–30 January 2018, Syrian airstrikes killed more than 200 civilians in East Ghouta and wounded over 600 more. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s former High Commissioner for Human Rights, described this first week of February 2018 as one of the bloodiest periods of the entire conflict. The escalation marked the beginning of a series of offensives that crushed the nominal de-escalation zones that had been announced in Astana on 4 May 2017. The first aid convoy since November 2017, which the GoS authorised in February, reached only 2.6 per cent of the approximately 272,500 civilians in East Ghouta.
By mid-March 2018, East Ghouta was divided into three separate areas. At this point, the armed opposition groups had lost 70 per cent of their former territory. Anticipating defeat, Ahrar al-Sham, one of the armed factions inside East Ghouta, was the first to negotiate its surrender and safe conduct to the province of Idlib on 21 March. Others, including Failaq al-Rahman, soon followed. Only a hard core of Jaysh al-Islam, the dominant faction in the enclave together with Failaq al-Rahman, refused to lay down arms. In response, GoS forces attacked the group’s stronghold of Duma with chlorine gas, killing at least 70 people. Jaysh al-Islam surrendered a day later. Altogether, the offensive killed at least 1,700 civilians, wounded another 5,000, and displaced a total of 130,000.
After the surrender of East Ghouta, the pro-Assad coalition turned on the de-escalation zone in northern Homs. In late April, while de Mistura was meeting with Turkish, Iranian and Russian officials in Geneva, and declared that the mutual exchanges regarding the Constitutional process had been constructive, the pro-Assad coalition escalated bombardments on the area along the M5 highway between northern Homs and southern Hama. After Russian negotiators threatened to wipe out the area and its inhabitants, local armed opposition groups agreed to a surrender deal. While Jaysh al-Tawhid, the most influential opposition group in Talbiseh, negotiated a deal with Russia and remained as a local force – now under Russian command – 35,000 fighters and civilians left towards Idlib. On 15 May 2018, the nominal de-escalation zone was officially back under GoS control.
By successfully securing the UN’s support for the Constitutional Committee and, more reluctantly, the Astana process in general, Russia managed to increase its political relevance. It also reduced the negotiations concerning the fourfold transition envisioned in UNSCR 2254 – governance, constitution, elections and counter-terrorism – to the subject of the constitution. This raised skepticism among the opposition, which feared being involved in a one-dimensional process that would help the GoS gain international legitimacy without taking any steps towards real power sharing.
The UN, on the other hand, deemed it a success that Geneva – not Sochi – became the host city for the Constitutional Committee. Although the result of direct negotiations between UN Secretary-General Guterres and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Vienna, it could also be seen as a rather bureaucratic victory. But once again, the pro-Assad coalition sabotaged diplomatic progress with military escalation. While the UN was busy mobilising support for the Constitutional Committee and the political track it hoped would come with it, the pro-Assad coalition deployed its forces to continue its attacks on the nominal de-escalation zones, starting with East Ghouta in February 2018. In this manner, the pro-Assad coalition created the impression of working towards a greater political settlement while in reality it was crushing major opposition-held areas in the country. This strategy took advantage of the UN’s slow-grinding wheels and the international community’s tendency to embrace initiatives that obviated the need to work on serious and feasible solutions to the Syrian conflict.
After five months of fruitless discussions about the Constitutional Committee’s formation and composition, the GoS came up with its own list of 50 government representatives in July 2018. This initiative infringed protocol, but the GoS argued that it should have the right to decide over the names to ensure a Syrian-owned process. The UN accepted the list and, as corollary, granted the opposition the right to submit a list as well. By mid-October, both the GoS’s and the opposition’s lists had been confirmed, but the list for civil society representation remained a key sticking point. Initially, the UN was meant to choose these delegates. But since Russia and Turkey had lost their privilege to compose the lists for the GoS and opposition delegations respectively, they tried to increase their involvement in the composition of the civil society delegation. The ensuing conflict continued for 12 months until October 2019. During that time, the UN tried to balance the various interests by effectively splitting the body into two blocks. Ultimately, the GoS decided on 29 names considered to be GoS-leaning while the UN decided on 21 names considered to be opposition-leaning. As well as the fight about the civil society body, July 2018–September 2019 was characterised by discussions about the Committee’s procedures.
Finally, in late September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced the so-called 'Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure’. The structure the document outlined has not changed since, with the Constitutional Committee consisting of a large body that includes all 150 delegates, and a small body composed of 45 delegates – 15 nominated by the GoS and 15 by the Syrian Negotiation Committee (SNC). The civil society body could not nominate its 15 delegates on its own. Instead, eight were chosen by the GoS and seven by the Syrian Negotiation Committee. The small body prepares and drafts the constitutional proposals that the large body is meant to adopt. Both bodies can take decisions based on supportive votes from a minimum of 75 per cent of their members. This means that each delegation has the possibility to block decisions and that decisions can only be made by broad consensus.
In mid-July 2018, the pro-Assad coalition began to amass troops in southern Syria and started to target towns and villages with air strikes and artillery. Russia joined the bombardments after it revoked the de-escalation agreement on 22 July. When the US, nominally a guarantor of the agreement along with Russia, also signaled that it was going to stay out, the pro-Assad coalition launched a major ground offensive against the southern de-escalation zone that covered parts of Daraa, Quneitra and Suweida. At the end of the month, southern Syria was nominally back under GoS control. The various armed opposition groups that had gathered under the banner of the Southern Front did not resist in a collective, organised fashion. Instead, individual surrender deals were negotiated town by town, setting off a domino effect that led to a quick collapse of resistance.
After having captured three of the four de-escalation zones, the pro-Assad coalition turned towards greater Idlib. In mid-August, GoS helicopters dropped leaflets calling for people to reconcile – the GoS’s term for surrender. But the leading jihadist faction, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), effectively cracked down on locals who promoted reconciliation. On 18 September 2018, Russia and Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding, known as the Sochi agreement, which set up a demilitarised buffer zone along Idlib’s frontlines that would guarantee the de-escalation zone’s survival. The deal also foresaw a reopening of the M4 and M5 highways and obliged Turkey to deal with HTS. It was obvious, however, that Russia and Turkey followed opposing strategies. While Turkey aimed to secure a long-term pocket for Syria’s internally displaced people (IDPs), Russian officials described the Sochi agreement as a ‘temporary measure’ that would ultimately result in a return of the GoS to Idlib.
In the following months, hostilities declined but never ceased. Meanwhile, HTS took the opportunity to turn on rival armed opposition groups and successfully expanded its control in north-western Syria. HTS’s expansion was explicitly addressed in the final statement of another summit in Sochi on 14 February 2019, in which Russia, Turkey and Iran announced their intention to ‘jointly counter these attempts’. The way was thus paved for the next offensive that displaced more than 55,000 civilians in February 2019 alone. After a temporary decrease in violence, the pro-Assad coalition again escalated bombardments in late April, followed by a major ground offensive that took the strategic towns of Kafr Nabuda and Qalaat al-Mudiq in northern Hama in early May. Due to heavy casualties on both sides, the fighting halted temporarily in June.
After a short break, the pro-Assad coalition continued its slow but steady advance, ultimately capturing the town of Khan Sheykhoun in late August. Opposition resistance in northern Hama eventually collapsed. Between May and mid-August, the offensive displaced a further 576,000 civilians. It was then that the Turkish observation posts turned out to be incapable of securing the de-escalation line agreed by Russia and Turkey. GoS forces simply circumvented the Turkish observation post at Morek, roughly 5 km south of Khan Sheykhoun, while the Turkish military did not attempt to stop the advance. In mid-September 2019, the ground offensive halted and Russia announced another unilateral ceasefire, but resumed heavy air strikes on civilian settlements in Idlib a few days later.
The protracted negotiations about the composition of the civil society delegation and the Constitutional Committee’s procedures resulted in a decline of the UN's influence on the process. Originally intended as a way to include respected individuals that could serve as bridge builders between the GoS and opposition, the civil society delegation became increasingly politicised. After 20 months of discussions, the GoS, Russia and Turkey had one by one excluded high-profile figures, including independent Kurdish representatives in the case of Turkey. The remaining delegates still had prominent profiles, however, and splitting the civil society delegation into a GoS-leaning and opposition-leaning side did not entirely subvert the idea of having a more neutral group of stakeholders in the Committee. But all civil society political ‘heavyweights’ – i.e. with the prospective ability to build bridges between opposing groups – had been vetoed by the GoS and Russia. At the same time as the GoS and Russia prevaricated over the Constitutional Committee’s composition and process, they created new facts on the ground. Twenty months after the Constitutional Committee’s initiation, all armed opposition groups were cornered in Syria’s north-west. The ongoing bombardment of civilian infrastructure in the opposition-held areas was a clear indication that the pro-Assad coalition intended to continue its offensives, thus fully realising its military solution for the conflict. Equipped only with a mandate to facilitate discussions, the UN’s room for manoeuver was rather limited. Staffan de Mistura’s remark that he had resigned his post as UN Syria envoy because he could not stand the idea of shaking President Assad’s hand illustrated vividly the bitterness among UN officials about how they had been played and rendered impotent.
The reshuffling process within the civil society delegation continued throughout October 2019. In that context, a small number of delegates of the GoS-leaning block resigned due to security concerns. Even though the 'Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure’ noted that the security of delegates, their families and property must be guaranteed, the GoS continued to intimidate individuals in an attempt to secure the loyalty of those within its reach in Syria and, to some extent, Lebanon. A prominent example of these dynamics was the arrest of Mohammad Ali Sayegh, a Syrian lawyer with the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), which is part of the tolerated opposition. Sayegh was detained on 8 October on the Syrian Lebanese border while he and three of his colleagues were travelling to a meeting in Riyadh. The UN interfered and, combined with pressure from Russia, Sayegh was released.
On 30 October 2019, the Constitutional Committee finally met officially for the first time in Geneva. The opening ceremony was followed by separate discussions within each delegation. Unlike previous negotiations in Geneva, the start of the Constitutional Committee was remarkably respectful. In their opening speeches, both Hadi al-Bahra, co-chair of the opposition delegation, and Ahmad Kuzbari, co-chair of the government delegation, signaled a willingness to compromise. In early November, the small group of the Constitutional Committee continued meeting for a week of daily discussions. As well as some discussions about general procedures, these meetings focused on well-known issues. While the government body highlighted the importance of sovereignty, the fight against what it called terrorism and the necessity to end sanctions, the opposition stressed the need for a ceasefire. As expected, this early phase achieved no concrete results regarding either a constitutional reform process or a new constitution.
Attacks in Idlib continued throughout October 2019. Meanwhile, the political and military focus shifted to north-eastern Syria, where Turkey had launched Operation Peace Spring on 9 October. For years, President Erdoğan had vowed to invade areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey equates with its parent organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
During a speech before the UN General Assembly on 24 September, Erdoğan made his threats concrete by presenting a plan for a so-called safe zone that would reach 32 km deep into Syrian territory and stretch for 180 km along the border of both countries. He managed to secure US President Trump’s support for the offensive. Thereupon, the US forces that had been working closely with the YPG since 2015 withdrew from the border area and exposed the SDF to the invading Turkish troops and their allies from the pro-Turkish Syrian National Army (SNA).
The Turkish invasion combined with the possibility of a full US withdrawal from Syria forced the SDF to enter into hasty negotiations with Russia and the GoS. By mid-October, Turkey had secured a 120 x 32 km corridor between Tall Abyad and Ras al-Ain. But a further advance in accordance with Turkey’s initial plans was ultimately thwarted by Russian forces. On 22 October, Turkey and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding that effectively accepted the established Turkish-controlled corridor and obliged Russia and the GoS to guarantee the removal of the YPG from the rest of the border area.
By keeping attacks against armed opposition forces in Idlib limited throughout October 2019, Russia and the GoS deviated from their habitual strategy of nipping UN-sponsored tracks in the bud through military escalation. This helps explain the relatively consensus-oriented behaviour of the government delegation during the Constitutional Committee’s launch. However, although the following period showed this approach to be as temporary as it was insincere, it served the pro-Assad coalition’s purposes for a short while. After 21 months of protracted negotiations, the Constitutional Committee – originally a Russian initiative – had to commence if it was not to disappear into oblivion and damage Russia’s reputation.
However, the next week of meetings within the civil society delegation showed the Constitutional Committee’s potential and limits in equal measure. The week started with what a member of the civil society body described as a ‘big fight’ over the body’s self-conception. The dispute was triggered by remarks from a government-leaning delegate who said that there would be no such thing as civil society in Syria and that the government-leaning side of the civil society body would follow the directions of the GoS without intending to take any decisions on its own. Even though the body’s effective split into two halves implied that one side would be government-leaning, this open declaration was perceived as an affront by those delegates who believed in the idea of functioning as an independent block, with the potential to build bridges within the body itself, but also between the GoS’s and the opposition’s bodies.
Later that week, emergent collaborative dynamics ultimately triggered a more confrontational stance from the GoS. Initially, one of the opposition-leaning delegates addressed Abod al-Saraj, a lawyer and teacher who remained well respected among many Syrians despite working for the Syrian state under the Assads, in a polite and kind manner. She stated how much she valued Mr. Saraj and that she would appreciate being able to attend one of his lectures in Damascus again, but that she and many others had reason to be based outside Syria. Later, Mr. Saraj was surrounded by delegates and facilitated a respectful meeting of individuals from both sides. It was precisely this sort of dynamic – in which respected individuals break through the polarisation and create the potential for common ground – that the GoS tried to prevent.
As a reaction to several such constructive micro-interactions, the government delegation began to adopt more confrontational rhetoric. On the one hand, it changed its self-description from 'government delegation’ to 'government-backed’, thus implying that the GoS would not be bound to any decisions made by the Constitutional Committee. On the other hand, it started to verbally attack the opposition body by calling it the ‘Turkish delegation’ and later the 'terrorist delegation’. The opposition body in turn denounced the government body as the Iran-leaning and 'Mukhabarat delegation’. What had started as a promising week, ended in confrontation. In an interview on 31 October 2019, President Assad made the GoS position very clear when he denounced members of the opposition delegation as foreign-led agents and terrorists and stated that the opposition delegates would be Syrian 'only in terms of an identity card, passport and nationality. But as for belonging, that is a different discussion, to which we all know the answer too aside from the diplomatic discourse’ [i.e. Assad implies they are terrorists and/or traitors].
In the run-up to the second round of meetings of the small group of the Constitutional Committee scheduled for 25 November 2019, both the GoS and opposition delegation were asked to submit agenda proposals. While the opposition delegation’s proposal focused on constitutional issues, the government delegation presented a list of so-called 'national principles’ that all delegates would have to accept as a precondition for further discussions. These principles included commitments against terrorism as well as the condemnation of sanctions and Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. Faced with strong objections from the opposition and parts of the civil society delegation – who rejected preconditions as a violation of the agreed protocol – the meeting risked collapse on its first day. In an attempt to find a solution, UN-envoy Pedersen went back and forth between the delegations that refused to get together. At the end of the day, the government delegation left the meeting, citing that its legitimate demands had been ignored. While President Assad made clear that 'there is no Geneva’, UN-Envoy Pedersen continued trying to find common ground for an agenda in order to facilitate a new round of discussions. However, the Constitutional Committee’s work has since been on hold. On 30 March 2020, Pedersen announced that the Constitutional Committee’s Co-Chairs had agreed on an agenda for the next round of meetings, 'discussing the national foundations and principles’. The UN-Envoy emphasised that the principles the three delegations can suggest are not meant as preconditions for further discussions on constitutional matters. Later, in mid-June, Pedersen announced a third round of meetings scheduled for late August 2020.
In late November 2019, the pro-Assad coalition gradually increased air strikes and shelling on north-western Syria. On 20 November, five days before the start of the Constitutional Committee’s second round of meetings, GoS forces fired two surface-to-surface rockets into a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) at al-Qah, a village just east of the Turkish border, killing at least 16 civilians. After weeks of heavy bombardments, pro-Assad coalition forces then launched a major ground offensive in mid-December, pushing towards the M5 highway that connects southern Syria with the city of Aleppo. A wave of air strikes and artillery fire resulted in the displacement of at least 200,000 civilians in December alone.
Until that point, the Turkish forces in the area had not push back. Instead, as had happened four months earlier in the countryside of northern Hama, GoS forces simply circumvented both established and newly created Turkish observation posts. In late January 2020, GoS forces captured the strategic town of Maarat al-Numan and pushed further north towards Saraqib. Turkey initially reacted by increasing arms flows to the National Liberation Front (NLF). However, throughout February, amid the continuing advance of the pro-Assad coalition in Western Aleppo, Turkey began to deploy thousands of troops and heavy weapons into Idlib. At first, Turkish forces did not engage in combat activities, hoping that their presence would be a sufficient deterrent. But after 33 Turkish troops were killed in an air strike on 27 February 2020, Turkey went on the offensive. Operation Spring Shield did not target Russian forces – who appeared to have been responsible for the Turkish casualties – to avoid a direct confrontation and keep the Astana track alive. Instead, Turkey’s operation dealt a devastating blow to GoS forces. Relying heavily on armed drones and embedded special forces, within seven days Turkish forces allegedly killed or severely wounded more than 3,000 GoS-linked troops, downed three war planes and eight helicopters, and destroyed hundreds of tanks, howitzers, armoured vehicles and rocket launchers.
On 5 March 2020, one week into Turkey’s offensive, President Erdoğan travelled to Moscow for direct discussions with President Putin. At that time, over 960,000 civilians had been displaced by the fighting. They agreed on a new ceasefire that froze the frontlines and stipulated joint patrols along the M4 highway that runs through opposition-held territory. According to the agreement, the M4 also serves as a six-kilometer-deep buffer zone along both sides of the highway. The M5, on the other hand, was untouched by the deal and remains under control of the GoS. Turkey had demanded a full retreat back to the initial Sochi lines, but the military facts that were already created on the ground were not reversed. Since then, the ceasefire deal has prevented major fighting. But the history of Idlib’s numerous ceasefire deals suggests that, in the absence of GoS willingness to negotiate a political solution, fighting will resume at some point. While the joint Turkish-Russian patrols have been unsuccessful due to public protests and security concerns, GoS forces restarted shelling frontline areas and concentrating reinforcements in early April. Anticipating a new offensive, Turkey also deployed reinforcements, including advanced air defence systems and missile launchers, and built up new military positions close to the M4 highway.
In reaction to the relatively constructive dynamics at the start of the Constitutional Committee, the GoS distanced itself from the initiative and deadlocked discussions. To achieve this, it broke the agreed protocol by ordering the government delegation to instead impose pre-conditions – which, according to one attendee, Ahmad Kuzbari called ‘natural principles that every Syrian would agree to’ – and simultaneously escalated its military campaign in north-western Syria. This escalation not only served military goals, but also sent a strong signal to those involved in the Constitutional process. The ballistic missile attack on the Al-Qah camp was an example of this strategy. Not only was it a blunt provocation to the delegates, it also put the opposition and civil society delegation in a difficult position because it underlined that no political process whatsoever would stop the pro-Assad coalition from committing war-crimes against civilians. It was thus another piece in the puzzle of the pro-Assad coalition’s well-established strategy of collectively punishing civilians and, at the same time, undermined the Constitutional Committee’s legitimacy among Syrians.
Even before the government delegation left Geneva, claiming its legitimate demands had been ignored, President Assad had openly declared that his administration would not participate in the Constitutional Committee. By stating that a Constitutional reform could only take shape after the final defeat of terrorism – the GoS term for opposition groups in general – he paved the way for a major offensive that would seize roughly one-third of the opposition-held areas left after the Sochi agreement of September 2018. This military escalation made it nearly impossible for the UN envoy and his team to find common ground for a mutually agreed agenda to revitalise the Constitutional Committee. Several delegates from the opposition and civil society delegation cited that they did not see any purpose in attending further meetings without a stable ceasefire being in effect.
Five months after the collapse of the Constitutional Committee’s work in late November 2019, the UN envoy has negotiated an agenda for the next round of meetings. His approach to include the GoS delegation’s demands of discussing national principles while ruling them out as preconditions can be seen as a concession to keep the process going.