Demands for constitutional reform date back to the early days of the Syrian conflict. However, the stalemate in the UN-led Geneva negotiations to resolve the conflict prevented serious discussion on constitutional reform until January 2018. At this point, the Russian government put pressure on the Government of Syria (GoS) to participate in its ‘Constitutional Committee’ initiative and requested assistance from the UN. After a further 21 months of negotiations about procedures and its composition, the Constitutional Committee formally commenced work in Geneva in October 2019. Yet after two rounds of meetings the process collapsed when the GoS delegation pulled out. A third round of meetings is scheduled for 24 August 2020. As the Constitutional Committee went from design into session and then broke down, the pro-Assad coalition retook most of opposition-held territory in Syria by force in the meantime.
This report takes a closer look at the Constitutional Committee process and military developments to reveal that they have so far been interconnected. It arrives at the conclusion that the GoS and Russia created and subsequently manipulated various linkages between conference room and battlefield to increase their own advantage.
A first exploited link is that once Russia had secured UN support for its Constitutional Committee project – connecting and legitimizing its own Astana/Sochi initiative in the process – it could keep the UN-led process on life support while the pro-Assad coalition pursued a military solution to the conflict without fear of greater political pressure from the international community. It should be recalled that the more exclusive, Russian-designed Astana/Sochi process was essentially a framework to facilitate a military solution to the conflict. This stratagem essentially prevented any Western military action from concretizing by dangling the tantalizing hope – or excuse – of a negotiated diplomatic breakthrough that never materialized.
A second link is that the pro-Assad coalition intentionally targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure to prevent political and civil society consolidation in opposition-held areas. This had the result that most opposition bodies and opposition-leaning civil society groups were forced to engage from abroad, which reduced their credibility and legitimacy. This stratagem precluded the formation of a better-grounded Syrian opposition to negotiate within the parameters of the Constitutional Committee.
A third and final link is that the pro-Assad coalition used military escalation to polarize the Constitutional Committee and thereby reduce its viability. The purposeful continuation of war crimes during the work of the Committee amount(ed)(s) to a blunt provocation to Syria’s opposition and civil society. Such acts logically increase tensions between the negotiating parties and this stratagem therefore lowered the chance of participants working out compromises.
Nevertheless, the Constitutional Committee has some remaining potential to reduce polarisation and enable bridge building. It also keeps the demands alive that were formalised in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254 and can act as a counterweight to a gradual rehabilitation of the GoS under Bashar al-Assad. However, it appears that a meaningful process can only be achieved through a strategy of directly confronting the GoS and Russia. This is because of the aforementioned linkages and because a hard counterweight is needed against the GoS approach for dealing with the conflict based on Russia’s military backing. As long as the pro-Assad coalition can thwart diplomatic efforts through military escalation, the Constitutional Committee’s prospects remain bleak.
Therefore, measures to revitalise the Committee must go beyond political, financial and technical assistance to the Committee itself and include political pressure on the GoS and Russia. It is from this perspective that the report recommends a joint European-Turkish-led humanitarian intervention in north-west Syria. Not only would it help solve the EU-Turkish dispute over refugee politics and protect up to 3 million cornered civilians, it could also change the balance of forces to the effect that the Constitutional Committee might be reinvigorated. This is the case especially because the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which recently went into effect, signaled to Moscow that there will be no political normalisation or socioeconomic recovery without significant political concessions from Damascus. In other words, Russia might pressurise the GoS into considering concessions via the Constitutional Committee if and when this would clear the way for a political resolution of the conflict.