Syria constitutional drafting body begins talks in first step towards peace

The outcome of talks will depend on Russia's role, experts say

General views during a ceremony to mark the opening of a meeting of the Syria constitution-writing committee on October 30, 2019 at the United Nations Offices in Geneva.  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, 3019, before agreeing anything that compromises its authority, experts have said. Opposition negotiators and some analysts also fear that Damascus will use its participation as a bargaining chip to normalise relations with the West, and eventually get sanctions lifted. / AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI
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The Syrian Constitutional committee’s drafting body on Monday began talks on political reforms that could lead to elections and an end to more than eight years of war.

An agreement to form a 150-member committee comprised of government, opposition and civil delegates to draft a new constitution for Syria was reached at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in Sochi in January 2018.

A core "drafting body" of 45 participants – each delegation has 15 – will carry out the harder work of fleshing out the text.

Decisions need the approval at least of 75 per cent of the delegates, to stop any one group dominating the debate and imposing its agenda.

The drafting committee will hold a four-hour session every day starting on Monday.

Talks are expected to last until Friday, although the UN has not set a timeframe.

The UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson, said last week that major world powers would not take part directly in the “Syrian-owned, Syrian-led” constitutional efforts, but they supported the process.

The talks have taken place despite Turkey launching a cross-border offensive in early October after US President Donald Trump ordered American forces to pull out of north-east Syria.

Turkey and Russia, President Bashar Al Assad’s main ally, have agreed to a peace plan calling for Kurdish forces to withdraw more than 30 kilometres from the Turkish border.

The idea of constitutional reform is part of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015, that defines the UN’s framework for Syria’s peace process.

Russia’s role in the talks

Several rounds of Syria peace talks in Geneva have failed and experts have shown scepticism towards the success of the constitutional committee, especially as Russia will play an instrumental role in the outcome of the talks.

The Syrian-owned, Syrian-led idea is an “illusion and not a reality”, said Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher in international relations at the University of Oxford.

“The negotiations themselves may well be between the Syrian opposition, Syrian government and civil society, but international powers played a role in selecting who participated,” Mr Ramani said. “It is not an organic union of Syrian factions."

The talks in Geneva will not change conditions in the country, the expert said.

“Even if the Syrian participants were to miraculously agree to peace, foreign stakeholders, particularly Russia and Turkey, still have tremendous sway over Idlib, for example,” Mr Ramani said.

Russia also seeks international legitimacy for the situation it has helped to create, said Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace.

“As the Assad regime extends its control over additional territory, Russia is now pivoting towards promoting a political settlement that legitimises the status quo; a Russian-backed Assad ‘victory’,” Ms Yacoubian said.

She said it would be challenging “to imagine how the committee can be truly Syrian-led and owned given the preponderance of external forces who are influencing events on the ground inside Syria".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and with his Iranian and Turkish equals Javad Zarif and Mevlut Cavusoglu made an appearance on the eve of the talks last week.

The gathering in the Swiss city marks the first political agreement between the government and the opposition.