New UN talks offer best hope for Syria peace
In an extraordinary achievement, a United Nations facilitator has managed to get a broad spectrum of parties to the wars in Syria to begin work today on a writing a constitution that could start to build peace.
UN Syria envoy Geir Pederson is facilitating a 45-member group that began work in Geneva on drafting a constitution for Syria. It comprises 15 persons each from the Syrian government, opposition and civil society, including several women.
This is a long shot but there is no other way to finally start bringing peace to the long-suffering people of that strategically-placed country, which also has a rightful claim as a cradle of Western and Middle Eastern civilization predating the rise of the Greeks.
Pederson brought together a larger group of 150 delegates for negotiations after nearly 8 years of relentless war. They were comprised of 50 each from the Syrian government, opposition and civil society –about one-third were women — and met for the first time face-to-face on October 30 and 31. This in itself was a momentous achievement.
The large group named the smaller 45 person drafting group, which is also a major feat. These are early days and the drafting process could yet explode in irreconcilable differences since the Syrian government and opposition are warring enemies and civil society representatives speak for the helpless people that the warring parties have consistently ignored so far.
Yet, as Pederson put it, they have come together “based on key principles – respect for the United Nations charter, Security Council resolutions, Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity, and the Syrian-led and owned nature of the process.
The drafting group’s job is “to prepare and draft for popular approval a constitutional reform, as a contribution to the political settlement in Syria and the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254.”
Resolution 2254 calls for a political transition process that would establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” together with a new constitution and free and fair elections. It was adopted nearly five years ago but failed to get off the ground until the drafting begun today.
The Syrian government announced a constitution in 2012 and its delegates may insist on retaining it as the foundation for the new process and contest amendments. Its delegates signalled flexibility but that remains to be seen.
Opposition delegates are mostly affiliated to the political wings of groups nurtured by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to oppose the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad. They may want a new constitution providing safeguards and privileges for them. Assad’s people blame them for the devastation in Syria and may find it difficult to stomach their demands.
Since civil society delegates have no bargaining power, they may find themselves in quandary faced by tussles between the government and opposition delegates.
To prevent any group overwhelming others during the drafting process, Pederson has placed a requirement accepted by everyone that all agreed clauses must have support from 75% of the members.
Critics say that such a high standard could fuel endless quarrels but it looks like the only way to make the draft acceptable to Syrians everywhere. Without acceptability, it will fail to promote reconciliation and peace-building.
Currently, Syrian government forces are gaining ground by dislodging US-allied Kurds from most of the 25% of Syrian territory that they obtained by defeating the Islamic State and dismantling its Caliphate.
The Kurds are withdrawing after an agreement with the Syrian government and Russian forces to save themselves from being crushed by Turkish forces after President Donald Trump betrayed them in early October.
The Turks have invaded a strip of Syrian territory along their border to create a buffer zone free of Kurdish fighters they see as terrorists. They are threatening to push the Kurdish fighters by military force out of a strip about 450 km long and 30 km wide.
The challenge for Pedersen is to cajole the drafting group to come up with a truly inclusive path towards constitutional rule of law and stability despite the very volatile military backdrop on the ground in Syria.
Since Assad is winning the war, the hope is that the drafting group’s work will dissuade him from imposing victor’s rules on all Syrians like favoring those who stood with him during the war and punishing those who opposed him.
Against this backdrop, the best hope for the Syrian people of all tribes and factions is a successful political process based on a draft completed in Geneva. Currently, there are many reasons to be skeptical about its chances of being robust enough to overcome so many obstacles.