Syria constitution talks: what does each side want?

Negotiations in Geneva have opened the door for a political settlement to end years of civil war

Ahmad Kuzbari, co-chair for the Syrian Government, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen and Hadi al-Bahra, co-chair for the Syrian opposition, speak during the meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland October 31, 2019. Martial Trezzini/Pool via REUTERS
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The Syrian Constitutional Committee gathered in Geneva this week to begin deliberations on political reforms that is hoped will lead to elections and end to more than eight years of war.

The government, opposition and civil society each have 50 members on the committee.

Committee members exchanged views on their vision for the future of Syria on Wednesday but it remains unclear whether a new constitution will be drawn up or whether amendments will be made to the current document that was enacted in 2012.

A core "drafting body" of 45 participants — each delegation has a third of the seats — is to carry out the harder work of fleshing out the text. Decisions need the approval at least of 75 per cent of the delegates to prevent any one group from dominating the debate and imposing its agenda.

Here's a look at what each of the three delegations hope to achieve:

The opposition 

The opposition insists that a new constitution be created that separates powers in order for the political process to move forward.

The committee's opposition co-chair, Hadi Al Bahra, told The National that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government "must be completely separate from the other in order for them to each be equally represented".

“When we discuss the issue of a constitution, we have to be serious about all articles; the most important is the separation of power,” Mr Al Bahra said.

The new constitution must “put Syria and its people above any consideration”, said Yahya Al Aridi, a member of the opposition delegation.

“We are aspiring for a document that respects the dignity of human beings, gives them the right to live as they please,” he said.

“We want the constitution to never allow the Syrian tragedy to return.”

The government 

President Bashar Al Assad’s government has not expressed a clear vision of what they expect from the talks. So far, Damascus has referred to them merely as a discussion about Syria's constitution.

The Syrian government co-chair, Ahmad Kuzbari, said in his opening statement on Wednesday that the country already has a modern constitution, but he was open to considering “any possible amendments or even a new constitution”.

Members of the opposition said they were “surprised” by the government’s announcement. Foreign Minister Walid Al Mouallem had said previously that amending "a few articles in the constitution would be enough to consider that the constitution is new".

"We were surprised by the regime's statement that they are open to establishing a new constitution because they did not say that before," an opposition member told The National.

“Great pressure has been exerted on Damascus to show their seriousness during these talks,” he said, adding that it could be a “sign of goodwill but we remain suspicious”.

Civil society

The Syrian civil society delegation says its main priority is “putting the public’s needs above everything else”.

"Our work is to ensure that the Syrian citizen has a guaranteed future by radically changing the regime and its leaders," delegate Samira Moubayed told The National.

“The government has limited the public’s freedom for the last 50 years and this has resulted in what we are seeing today,” she said.

However, the three sides have found common ground in acknowledging that the road ahead remains challenging.

They admit that the constitutional committee alone cannot push for a political solution in Syria, but is a part of a wider effort to achieve peace.