By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif *
The opposing sides in the Syrian conflict are this week co-chairing a meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva, after having agreed to begin the drafting process of a new basic law for the country. Following a pause of nine months, the committee — comprising representatives of the Syrian regime and members of the political opposition, plus key civil society figures — is holding its sixth round of talks under UN auspices.
UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen said the committee would discuss key principles on its first day and then begin drafting articles for a new constitution. A 45-member committee will draft the articles before delivering them to a 150-member panel for approval.
Two years of separate discussions have led nowhere, with the Syrian regime’s representatives refusing to commit to anything on paper. But the past few months have seen crucial diplomatic movements that appear to have had a direct impact on the position of the Damascus regime.
President Bashar Assad’s visit to Moscow in September and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin may have covered the political aspect of moving toward a settlement of the decade-old Syrian conflict. That visit came a month after Jordan’s King Abdullah flew to Moscow to discuss with Putin, among other things, the Syrian crisis. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held discussions with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Miqdad that covered this week’s meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi also met Miqdad in New York and discussed ways to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
It is believed that Putin has urged Assad to show flexibility in Geneva. Initially, the formation of the committee was based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015. But it was only after Russia’s intervention in 2018 that a final framework was agreed upon between the regime and the opposition. Since then, five meetings have been held, with little or no progress. Regime representatives had said earlier that no agreement will be implemented on the ground.
In May, Assad was re-elected for a fourth term, but few countries have recognized the outcome of the ballot. Since then, there appears to have been a major shift in the regional perception of the conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. The US, the biggest donor, has agreed to continue providing humanitarian aid to about 11 million displaced Syrians through Turkey. And while the Biden administration insists it will not deal with the Assad regime and will continue to impose sanctions under the Caesar Act, it has proposed supplying energy-starved Lebanon with electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt through Syrian territory.
This initiative coincided with King Abdullah calling on the US and Europe to engage the Russians into finding a political end to the conflict by focusing on changing the behavior of the regime, rather than removing it. As a result, Jordan has reopened its borders with Syria and hosted senior Syrian government and military officials in Amman. And, earlier this month, King Abdullah received a call from Assad — the first since 2011.
Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia have all made goodwill gestures toward Damascus in the hope of reintegrating Syria into the Arab fold and undercutting Iran’s influence in that country. That goal is shared by Moscow, whose leader has called on all uninvited foreign troops to leave the country, and Israel. The US position is not clear, but Jordan and Egypt would not have moved toward normalizing ties with Assad without Washington’s tacit approval.
A secret document, said to be Jordanian, that was published by Asharq Al-Awsat this month suggests taking practical steps to normalize ties with Syria, while recognizing Russian interests in that country, in return for a gradual change in the behavior of the regime. That new approach is in line with what Pedersen suggested, which was to adopt a step by step plan that begins with a US-Russian understanding on Syria.
Back in Geneva, it is too early to show enthusiasm, but the fact that the two sides are meeting face to face and that they have agreed to take practical steps toward drafting a new basic law signals a major change in the attitude of Damascus. By Friday, we will know more and have an idea of what the ensuing steps will look like.
Many have criticized the Geneva process for failing to deliver, but there are few alternatives, if any, to a balanced political course that would draw a road map that culminates in a political settlement. Naturally, there are many obstacles ahead and, while the joint Jordan-Egypt initiative is a transactional one, Assad is expected to reciprocate by showing some flexibility and willingness to distance himself from Iran, but so far the regime has kept its cards close to its chest.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010