Under the current circumstances, the Constitutional Committee is unlikely to resume its work or generate meaningful results. As a senior UN diplomat put it in a recent interview, ‘Russia can force the Assad government to be present in Geneva physically, but can’t force it to genuinely engage’. The GoS’s de facto pulling out from the Committee negotiations in Geneva, combined with the military escalation in north-west Syria that followed, clearly suggests that Damascus, Moscow and Tehran are still working towards a military solution to the conflict. But that does not necessarily mean that the Constitutional Committee has failed conclusively.
An assessment of the Constitutional Committee’s prospects of ‘success’ depends on how the term is defined. If success is equated with cementing a new constitution in Syria’s political and legal system to pave the way for a political transition in accordance with UNSCR 2254, the Constitutional Committee is likely to fail. The GoS has plenty of possibilities to delay the process over several years, or to prevent a new constitution being implemented. Should Russia put pressure on its ally to adopt and implement a new constitution, the GoS is unlikely to respect it.
However, another way of defining the potential success of the Constitutional Committee is in terms of process and relations. Its launch in October 2019 showed that the concept and its set-up can facilitate exchanges and (some) understanding between groups that would otherwise remain more distant. Hence, the process has some potential to counter polaristion and allow bridge building. It also keeps alive the demands formalised in UNSCR 2254 and can act as a counterweight to the rehabilitation of the GoS under Bashar al-Assad that is emerging in parts of the Gulf. Last but not least, the large proportion of women delegates is a novelty in Syrian politics that might influence the country’s politics over the longer term (29% of the Constitutional Committee’s delegates are female). This does not guarantee real empowerment or rule out ‘state sponsored feminism’, but it allows a number of women to gain political experience.
However, to reap such process and relational benefits, the Constitutional Committee must be made to exist beyond its current state of sleepwalking, which is mostly the result of the GoS delegation pulling out. Overall, it is likely that a meaningful process can only be achieved through an active strategy of confrontation with the GoS and Russia. It must be underpinned by a clear and credible threat of dissolving the Committee if no improvements can be realised. But it must also be recognized that this in itself will not be sufficient because the potential of the Constitutional Committee is directly linked with the balance of power on the ground. As long as this balance remains in effect an imbalance, a corrective intervention is needed. Revitalization of the Constitutional Committee’s prospects to discuss real but modest political change in Syria – against the backdrop of the Caesar Act and a battlefield situation that is at least temporarily stalemated – can be put into effect via a three-pronged approach:
First, the Constitutional Committee itself must be strengthened to operate more capably and effectively. This can be achieved, for example, by the European Union as well as its individual member states providing the body with longer-term political, financial and technical support, especially for members of its opposition and civil society bodies.
Second, the UN-Envoy should announce a temporary freeze of the Constitutional Committee and limit the activities of his team to a minimum in case the GoS delegation does not engage in a credible and sustainable manner during the third session scheduled for 24 August 2020. Should this happen, Mr. Pedersen should expose the GoS delegation’s refusal to stick to the protocol and the GoS’s overall distancing from the Committee as the reason for the freeze. He should furthermore make it clear that a resumption of meaningful discussions is conditional on a nationwide ceasefire.
Third, a joint Turkish-European military humanitarian intervention should be fielded in northwest Syria. As long as the pro-Assad coalition can thwart diplomatic efforts by escalating militarily, the Constitutional Committee’s prospects remain bleak. Although the Turkish-Russian understanding in north-western Syria has proven unable to guarantee a stable ceasefire, Turkey has strong incentives to stabilise the region in order to prevent a further influx of refugees. The same applies to the European Union, which has so far outsourced much of the work to Turkey. The EU’s and Turkey's shared interests could enable a jointly conducted humanitarian intervention to create the leverage necessary to revitalise the Constitutional Committee in a meaningful way, and also help solve the EU-Turkish dispute over refugee politics and protect the up to 3 million civilians cornered in greater Idlib.
Given the present state of EU-Turkish relations, such an intervention is not evident. The framework below outlines how a successful intervention might be accomplished.
Step 1: Form a multilateral military alliance for a humanitarian intervention: The situation in north-west Syria is critical to any cessation of hostilities. In order to create the military deterrence necessary to obtain a ceasefire and to start looking for a negotiated political solution to the war, Turkey, the US, France, the UK, Germany and other willing EU members should form an alliance that can transform Turkey’s presence in greater Idlib into a multilateral military humanitarian intervention. The probability of 3 million Syrians pushing towards Turkey’s border if there is renewed conflict provides adequate realpolitik incentives for a morally overdue humanitarian intervention. Even though the US is not directly affected by refugee movements, supporting the alliance could be an effective way to improve its relations with NATO ally Turkey and counter both Russian and Iranian influence.
Step 2: Develop the operation’s legal foundation: An international military build-up can work as a deterrent, making clear that a GoS takeover of Idlib by force is off-limits. Yet, the legal foundation of such an intervention is critical. Even though the concept of humanitarian interventions has been damaged, the deadlock in the UN Security Council combined with the severe human rights violations and war crimes against Syrian civilians are sufficient to make a strong case. The problem is that laying out a concrete plan for the duration and ‘time afterwards’ – a requirement for a legally sound intervention – is very difficult to establish. Nevertheless, the intervention could argue that it will withdraw once a political settlement guaranteeing the safety of civilians is effectively in place. The roadmap for such a settlement has already been agreed by the international community, including Russia and Iran, and is laid out in UNSCR 2254. From this perspective, the resumption of the Constitutional Committee’s work, which is legally connected with UNSCR 2254, could be considered a start.
Step 3: Execute a European-Turkish-led humanitarian intervention: A multilateral humanitarian intervention has to be conducted with a precise distribution of competences. While Turkey can shoulder much of the military work, the other countries have to provide significant political, financial and logistical support, especially in the form of humanitarian assistance to Syrians who live out of the GoS’s reach. European countries ought to deploy intelligence gathering assets, reconnaissance forces and air defence systems in southern Turkey similar to the deployments that were part of NATO Operation Active Fence (2012–15).
Step 4: Invite Russia to support the intervention: There is no doubt that Russia would oppose a European-Turkish intervention, but it has good reasons to tolerate it. Apart from economic and political issues unrelated to Syria, Moscow has a strong interest in maintaining Turkey as a partner in its Syria policy. This applies particularly to the Astana/Sochi process that, without Turkey, constitutes merely a ‘Friends of the Syrian regime’ club. Moreover, Idlib is not essential to Russia as long as it is assured that the issue of radical extremist groups will be taken care of. This is precisely the reason why Russia might support such a mission through, for example, joint ground patrols and reconnaissance flights. Inviting Russia in an auxiliary role would be smart politics since it puts the professed Russian commitment to a stable ceasefire in north-west Syria to the test. The exit route for both Russia and the intervention is also clear: the roadmap of UNSCR 2254.
Enforcing a safe zone as part of a humanitarian intervention would face many challenges that go beyond legal issues and confronting Russia. Three in particular stand out and would need to be addressed.
The issue of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other designated terrorist organisations have undermined ceasefires in the past and need to be handled carefully. In light of HTS’s current dominance, the European-Turkish alliance should contain the organisation to the greatest extent possible. Turkey could use its working relations with HTS to engage in a pragmatic negotiation process for that purpose. HTS developed as a result of the mix of the pro-Assad coalition’s scorched earth war against its domestic enemies and their incremental banishment to the north-west. A consolidation of the north-west based on a stable ceasefire and temporary international mission will create different conditions that will allow Syria’s potentially powerful civil society to re-emerge. Chances are high that a Syrian-led response to the dominance of HTS will develop endogenously.
The problematic relationship with Turkey: Turkey’s role in Syria and beyond is one of concern. President Erdoğan follows his nationalist agenda by waging a war against the PKK and its Syrian affiliate that infringes international law. The same applies to the tens of thousands of Syrians that have gathered under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA) and conduct crimes in Turkish-controlled territory while being on Ankara’s payroll. While these problems make Ankara a difficult partner and cannot be ignored, turning away from Turkey has not improved anything in the past. An engagement at eye level with Turkey and a consolidation of the opposition-held areas, on the other hand, opens room for diplomacy and the demobilisation of SNA fighters, who should not be considered a lost cause.
Consider consequences for humanitarian aid: The GoS understands very well that control over humanitarian assistance is an important source of power. Over the years, it has successfully centralised the organisation and distribution of aid, as far as possible shifting it to Damascus. Out of fear of reprisals and faced with tremendous bureaucratic obstacles, UN agencies and INGOs have submitted to the GoS, which, in turn, systematically politicises and weaponises aid. Any international intervention in northwest Syria is certain to create further impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid in this area, especially for UN agencies and INGOs operating from Damascus. As a result, aid delivery mechanisms that operate from Turkey should be strengthened ahead of, or in parallel with, a humanitarian military intervention to prevent worsening the situation. There is also the additional challenge of reducing the extent of regime capture of aid, which should be taken to hand as a matter of urgency by the US and Europe. They should threaten to shift more of their aid to local mechanisms and to north-west Syria if the GoS continues to impede impartial, neutral and independent humanitarian assistance.
If Europe is serious about preventing the bloody Syrian civil war from turning into a permanent, low-level conflict with regular insurgencies and terrorist attacks, the Constitutional Committee must be revived. Presently, it is the only forum for dialogue that centres on Syrians and has a chance of gradually building the relations and confidence that might ultimately develop some form of negotiated solution. Reviving the Committee requires a balance of forces that rules out further escalation by the GoS and its allies. This requires greater European military cooperation with Turkey in Syria, supplemented by coordinated humanitarian and diplomatic activity.
The humanitarian intervention outlined above has, combined with the Caesar Act, a real chance of bringing Moscow to the conclusion that a settlement is not only necessary but requires concessions. There are plenty of challenges and it is late in the war, but the fate of millions may rest on such action. Whether Moscow’s influence will be adequate to bring Damascus to the negotiating table ready to make concessions is a matter for another report, but at a minimum the regime will come under even more pressure, which will limit its ability to wreak further destruction.