Syria needs a new constitution - even if those responsible won't deliver it

A committee of civil war factions is meeting in Geneva to chart a way forward for the country

Members of the civil society delegation attend the first meeting of the new Syrian Constitutional Committee at the United Nations in Geneva on October 30, 2019. Syria's government may be on board for the UN-brokered review of its constitution, but it will sink the Geneva talks opening on October 30, 2019, before agreeing anything that compromises its authority, experts have said. / AFP / POOL / DENIS BALIBOUSE
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This week, a constitutional committee tasked with drafting Syria's post-war charter convened in Geneva, Switzerland to continue its deliberations. The committee is meeting under the auspices of the UN, and theoretically is supposed to represent Syrian society more broadly; it is made up in equal thirds of individuals nominated by the government, the opposition and representatives of civil society.

You would be forgiven, even as a Syria observer, if you had no idea why such a committee exists or what the point of its meetings are. The committee gives life to the cliche that you can kill the prospects of an issue of public import by forming a committee to debate it. Originally conceived six years ago, it took until 2018 for all sides to actually agree to create it, and then until September 2019 to agree on its members. The war, of course, continued during these negotiations, sealing President Bashar Al Assad’s victory while the UN-backed theatrics continued.

Since then, the meetings have achieved nothing of import. After 16 months, the UN's special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, said in his opening remarks at this week's convention that it was time finally to move from talking about things to actually writing some elements of this mercurial constitution down. At this rate, they may be halfway through drafting the articles sometime in the middle of the decade. The lack of seriousness is reflected in the sessions themselves, which are largely consumed by issues of procedure, grandstanding and matters unrelated to the legal task at hand, such as the lifting of sanctions and the ongoing presence of foreign military powers on Syrian territory.

Our cartoonist Shadi Ghanim's take on the process under way to write Syria's new constitution.
Our cartoonist Shadi Ghanim's take on the process under way to write Syria's new constitution.

The committee is part of a package of reforms that might better be categorised as facelifts for the Assad regime, which has presided over a decade of war that displaced half the country's population and killed more than half a million people, and ushered in an era of economic ruin pockmarked with American and western sanctions that have made reconstruction impossible even as the regime has won the war. These reforms also included sham parliamentary elections and a planned presidential vote this year, the winner of which is pre-ordained. The steps were meant as confidence-building measures that would eventually pave the way for a rapprochement with Europe, the lifting of EU sanctions and the influx of funds for economic recovery.

Naturally, the regime has seen absolutely no need to compromise with its opponents while it stands victorious and enjoys the backing of its Russian and Iranian allies, which is why none of these laudable ideas have been of consequence. Instead, it has turned into a ceremonial charade. As Syria's now-deceased foreign minister Walid Al Muallem once said: "We will drown them in the details."

There also appear to be no other obvious prospects for a resolution in the immediate future. The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged Syria, but has also largely paused any major military offensives, leaving the civilians caught up in the war in a kind of twilight zone as the country and economy continue to unravel around them. The status quo has held because there is no alternative, but it is also not sustainable for the country to remain in this purgatory forever, especially as the misery of poverty and want replaces that of conflict.

None of the major powers involved on the ground have seen a need to force the peace process forward, an endeavour in which the US has been absent for years under the Trump administration. The Caesar sanctions imposed on Syria are crippling and can potentially be a useful bargaining chip if negotiations resume during a Biden presidency, but it is too early to determine the new administration's policy towards Damascus.

The debate over a new constitution can be instrumental in fielding questions that have vexed Syrians throughout the conflict

But the lack of progress on the constitution is also disappointing and frustrating from a moral and humanitarian point of view. There is no world in which the Assad regime and its security apparatus preside over a genuine reformation of Syria's totalitarian state. Ten years of war and devastation have proven that they would rather have Syria burn than entertain the prospect.

And yet one must start somewhere. The debate over a new constitution can be instrumental in at least fielding many of the questions that have vexed Syrians throughout the conflict. Questions of governance, like whether a federal system can account for the varying needs of the provinces and ethnic minorities. Questions of identity, like the character of the state as an Arab polity. Questions around women’s equality, around the rights of minority groups in a multi-confessional society. Questions about the system of government and how it distributes power if the Assad clan ever gives up its hold on that power.

Syria’s long-term future depends on a serious accounting for the crimes that this generation and previous ones have endured, on reconciliation, on peace building, on the release of political prisoners, on genuine reform. But the first steps on the road must be taken for that to happen.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National