Analysis

The First Step in a 1,000-mile Journey to Rebuild Syria

After over eight years of war, a 150-member committee will soon convene to write a constitution for the battle-weary country. But internal divisions and foreign interests could torpedo the accord at any time

A poster of Bashar Assad along the road in Damascus, Syria, April 14, 2018.
Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The accord achieved this week in Syria to form a committee tasked with writing a constitution may be considered a crucial diplomatic achievement. After more than a year and a half of negotiations, throughout which the Syrian army and Russian air force continued to battle anti-Assad rebels, this could be the start of a political process that will end the war.

The committee will have 150 representatives: Fifty on behalf of the regime, 50 on behalf of the rebels and 50 to be chosen by a United Nations representative, after consultation with the two camps. The committee will be tasked with writing a new constitution for Syria. A draft has already been written in Moscow, and given to the regime and rebels. Ultimately its aim is to change the structure of the regime, to achieve proportional representation for all parts of Syrian society and minorities in the government and to institute democratic reform.

All those involved realize that this is just the first, fragile step in a thousand-mile journey. The huge size of the committee along with the political and ideological divisions within the groups, let alone between them, could torpedo the whole thing at any time.

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Approval of the committee’s resolutions will require a majority of 75 percent of its members. However such majority may prove impossible, given conflicting interests between the regime and opposition. The civil war isn’t over yet, and the fight over Idlib, which could cause hundreds of deaths and send hundreds of thousands fleeing, proves another obstacle to achieving the accord. Formal discussions regarding the articles of a future constitution have yet to be held but when they are, bitter conflict is likely to arise.

Furthermore, the Kurdish rebels who control some northern districts aren’t represented in the committee, both because Turkey refused to allow it and because they didn’t want to themselves, on the grounds that they hadn’t been included in previous discussions. And with that, the committee has lost its status as ostensibly representing all of Syria’s communities.

On the other hand, Russian sponsorship, and acquiescence from the U.S., Iran and Turkey to the committee's composition, and the fact that the UN will run the discussions – should give the result international recognition. This is why the three countries who labored to put the committee together – Russia, Iran and Turkey – agreed to give the UN secretary-general the honor of declaring the committee’s establishment, rather than rushing themselves to announce it after their summit in Ankara this week.

Commensurately, it bears mentioning that conferences held in Geneva back in 2012, which were then followed by conventions organized by Russia in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan (now called Nur Sultan), produced agreements in writing that couldn’t be turned into diplomatic action. At most they resulted in partial ceasefires that were often broken. Is the new committee likely to fare any better?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Iran's President Hassan Rohani in Ankara, Turkey, September  16, 2019.
Burhan Ozbilici/AP

In its favor are the immense damage, the wholesale killings and the despair and the frustration of the people of Syria after eight years of war. The dissolution of many rebel militias, the realization that American and Arab backing for them had evaporated, the U.S. intention to withdraw from Syria and the urgent need to rebuild the nation and its economy, all also help the political process to mature. The acknowledgement that Bashar Assad will not only stay in power, but even enjoys the accession of the West and Turkey; and the loss of the military option leave only one option for solution: The political path.

Based on the accords reached between the regime, the rebels and other involved camps, the committee is supposed to convene soon and elect 45 representatives to engage in the final composition of the constitution, and to bridge between the camps. The goal is to complete the writing within six months, at which point the constitution will be brought to before the public for a referendum.

Since the constitution will engage, among other things, in the powers of the president, the fear is that Assad will do everything in his power to thwart any detraction of his status and torpedo the whole thing. The question is whether Russia is prepared to force him not to, and whether Iran will cooperate with Russia on this matter.

Each have their own interests and fears about their status in Syria after the war, and all parties will try to channel the constitution in the direction that serves their own aims, not necessarily those of the people of Syria.

Another question, albeit premature, is the legitimacy of the referendum. Assad controls most of the country but some critical regions, chiefly the Kurdish enclaves and districts in the south, aren’t under his control – and could boycott the referendum, negating its legitimacy to approve the constitution. These issues could dampen any optimism about the chances of a diplomatic move. But then again, mere weeks ago, no one could have predicted that the parties would agree to compose a constitution committee, or that they would sit together for a serious discussion about Syria’s future.