Syria Insight: Regime walk-out leads to new 'constitution crisis'

Syria Insight: Regime walk-out leads to new 'constitution crisis'
For some the constitutional talks were a last hope in ending the Syrian war peacefully. For others, it was another attempt by the regime to stall for time.
7 min read
18 February, 2021
The UN-led Syria talks have broken down. [Getty]
The unexpected success of the fourth round of UN-backed Syrian Constitutional Committee talks in late 2020 meant that the next session, held in late January, came amid a rare atmosphere of hope and optimism.

Bringing together members of the Assad regime, opposition, and civil society to discuss fundamental changes to Syria's constitution was never going to be an easy task.

Past discussions had seen bitter disagreements, stalling tactics, and walk-outs from the regime delegation. The 2020 breakthrough saw the delegations converge on Geneva once again, tasked with moving talk of constitutional reform to a drafting stage - a huge step in the process.

Things fell apart when the regime delegation refused to proceed with the agenda for the session, leading to the collapse of the talks and the disappointment of diplomats.

"I set out a few things I thought we should be able to achieve before we started the meeting and I'm afraid we did not manage to achieve these things," said a despondent Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy for Syria, shortly after the impasse led to the collapse of talks.

Blocks and failures

The failure of round five in the talks means that the UN-backed channel is now effectively dead and that the violence in Syria will continue.

Some view the lack of clout, discipline and international support the talks needed to stay on track meant they were always destined for failure. Others believe the regime were never serious about reforms anyway and so would eventually scupper the process.

A last-bid UN effort to jump-start the talks earlier this month with the support of the Security Council ended in failure with member states unable to agree a joint delegation.

"As opposition, and even prior to this round, we have made it clear that this is not acceptable, and that the UN with the support of the international community - particularly the Security Council - needs to be empowered to push for more meaningful talks for the Constitutional Committee with a reasonable timeline," Dima Moussa, an opposition member of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, told The New Arab.

"In short, we are disappointed by the outcome of this round which was a chance to show seriousness about the constitutional process in particular, and the political process in general as the way to get Syria and Syrians out of the crisis they are living," Moussa added.

Talks were loosely based on UN Resolution 2254 - the opposition-backed framework for ending the war - but were only focused on the constitutional aspect of it.

The aim was for a new constitution to be drafted before the 2021 presidential elections in spring.

Besides the tight timeline, the other elephant in the room was that there was little impetus for the regime to take negotiations seriously, seeing that Resolution 2254 - if ever enacted - would ultimately lead to its downfall.

What pushed the talks to the fifth round was the vague nature of the discussions, which Moussa said avoided direct talk of constitutional reform.

When talks were held in late January, the opposition and parts of the civil society delegations presented 35 constitutional principles to work with for a new draft.

The regime side presented none and instead spent the whole time bringing up issues already discussed in previous rounds.

"In essence and overall, the attitude has not changed very much, merely the ways in which the regime's delegation obstructs the process have slightly changed, but as long as there are no signs of serious engagement in the process, changes here and there are irrelevant," Moussa explained.

Presidential elections

Disruptions, obstructions and walk-outs have been repeatedly used by Syrian regime delegations to avoid meaningful discussion with the opposition.

Sometimes these tactics were intended to bide time before launching new military assaults - such as before the East Aleppo offensive - or simply to appear to be serious about peace.

For the regime, the UN-led Geneva process is an opportunity to pretend to be involved - it has shown time and time again that it is not serious about negotiations

Underpinning the whole stalling process has been Assad's insistence that the war can only end with a regime victory.

"For the regime, the UN-led Geneva process is an opportunity to pretend to be involved - it has shown time and time again that it is not serious about negotiations by wasting time in the sessions lecturing everybody on issues not related to the agenda of walking out," said Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa Department, Heinrich Boll Foundation Berlin.

"But participating means having a kind of imitation of a peace process, in order to conceal the regime's exclusive way to end the citizens' uprising."

Another factor in the regime's involvement in the negotiations has been the pressure from Russia, which is looking for international validation of its intervention in Syria.

"For Russia, it is not only about keeping Assad in power but about having international recognition for its role in the conflict. This, it can only achieve through the Geneva Process and that is why it has been pushing Assad to participate," said Scheller.

Russia has ensured that there is little danger that the talks could result in Assad's fall from power or the regime having to concede power to the opposition, although it has repeatedly hailed its intentions to find a resolution to the war.

"According to 2254, there should be a ceasefire, an end to human rights violations, and political transition should start – then comes the constitution. So, Russia managed to single out one element of a complex process, precisely the element it finds least offensive and which enjoys international esteem," said Scheller.

"Supporting constitutionality is excellent for the image and sounds like state building, as well as deflecting attention away from the brutal military assault on the population which has been happening in parallel… neither Russia nor the regime feel bound by constitutional stipulations anyway."

Despite Russia's apparent pressure on the regime to take part in the talks, the walk-out is another sign that Assad can only be pushed so far and will defy Moscow if it threatens his rule.

"No matter how little the regime feels bound by its own constitution and laws it does not want to be pressured and so I see its efforts to stall and block the process directed not only against the Syrian opposition but also… to humiliate and confront Russia," Scheller said.

"I find it difficult to talk about a 'peaceful resolution' when already more than 400,000 civilians have died and tens of thousands forcibly disappeared. The way the regime and Russia have made the international community believe time and time again that they will engage in negotiations while never making concessions or gestures of goodwill."

It means that Assad will likely go ahead with another rigged presidential election later this year, who has always stated that his only vision for ending the war is a military one.

"Assad is likely to go ahead with the presidential elections and will get re-elected. This gives him the appearance of legitimacy that he has been living on for the past years," said Scheller.

"More importantly, it is a statement against transition and underlines that the regime – even though it accepted Kofi Annan's six-point (peace) plan in 2012 – is not considering ceding power or changing course."

For Moussa and other members of the opposition delegation, there are few hopes that the talks can be rescued before presidential elections are held in spring.

"The ball is in their court now to shoulder their responsibilities. We are ready and anxious to make sure that the political (process) is underway in a serious manner, as the longer it takes the more catastrophic the situation becomes for Syrians," said Moussa.

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin