A new Syr­ian con­sti­tu­tion is a fig leaf to spare the blushes of the pow­er­less

The National - News - - OPINION - FAISAL AL YAFAI

Over the past few days, two of the fo­rums tasked with end­ing the Syr­ian war have co­a­lesced their ef­forts around the writ­ing of a new con­sti­tu­tion for Syria.

First, over the week­end, came a push from the UN spe­cial en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, who will step down next month af­ter four years in the job. Speak­ing to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, he seemed to pin his hopes on a new con­sti­tu­tion be­ing cre­ated but said Da­m­as­cus was block­ing the cre­ation of a draft­ing com­mit­tee. At last month’s UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly, Syr­ian for­eign min­is­ter Walid Al Muallem went so far as to warn against ex­ter­nal in­ter­ven­tion in the form­ing of a com­mit­tee.

Then, on Satur­day, Turkey and Rus­sia pulled off quite a re­mark­able coup, get­ting the lead­ers of Ger­many and France to go to Is­tan­bul and essen­tially en­dorse a plan that the Rus­sians had first man­u­fac­tured, is­su­ing a communique call­ing for a draft­ing com­mit­tee to be es­tab­lished be­fore the end of the year.

They pro­posed this de­spite know­ing – be­cause Mr De Mis­tura had told them just hours be­fore – that the As­sad regime was stalling on the for­ma­tion of the com­mit­tee and re­fus­ing to ac­cept the UN’s au­thor­ity in ap­point­ing mem­bers to the com­mit­tee.

Cyn­i­cal ob­servers might wonder if the re­newed push for the com­mit­tee to be formed in the next few weeks is sim­ply a way of al­low­ing Mr De Mis­tura to leave with some diplo­matic dig­nity at the end of Novem­ber.

In any case, the idea of a new Syr­ian con­sti­tu­tion is a mere diplo­matic fig leaf, con­cocted to spare the blushes of western pow­ers for hav­ing been com­pre­hen­sively out­ma­noeu­vred by Rus­sia and the Syr­ian regime. A new con­sti­tu­tion will not, as the lead­ers de­clared, pave the way for elec­tions and an end to the war. The As­sad regime will not al­low a gen­uinely new con­sti­tu­tion. And even if there was a new con­sti­tu­tion, it would not solve the is­sues it is meant to ad­dress.

The sud­den fo­cus on this new con­sti­tu­tion is puz­zling, given that, from the mo­ment it was pro­posed in Jan­uary, it has cre­ated di­vi­sions among Syria’s op­po­si­tion and looked ex­tremely un­likely to ever hap­pen.

Re­call that the pro­posal for a 150-mem­ber com­mit­tee made up of both govern­ment and op­po­si­tion fig­ures to rewrite the con­sti­tu­tion and pave the way for elec­tions was first pro­posed at a Rus­sian-backed con­fer­ence in the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi ear­lier this year, at a time when Rus­sian fighter jets were drop­ping bombs in sup­port of the As­sad regime.

Mr De Mis­tura in­ex­pli­ca­bly took the idea back un­der the aus­pices of the UN-led Geneva process, de­spite lead­ing op­po­si­tion fig­ures say­ing at the time that it was un­work­able and the wrong mo­ment to try it.

The op­po­si­tion ar­gued at the time that what was needed was a tran­si­tional govern­ment to prove that there would be a move away from the As­sad regime. Worse, they pointed out, seek­ing to rewrite the con­sti­tu­tion in Syria, at a time when war was still on­go­ing and the regime was fight­ing for its sur­vival, was hardly con­ducive to a gen­uinely im­par­tial process.

Still, the idea has not gone away and Mr De Mis­tura last week asked Rus­sia and Turkey to push the regime to stop block­ing the estab­lish­ment of the com­mit­tee, so that the process of writ­ing a con­sti­tu­tion – nearly a year af­ter it was first pro­posed – can ac­tu­ally be­gin.

But there will be no new con­sti­tu­tion. That much ought to have been clear to a sea­soned diplo­mat. In­stead, the end­less de­bate with the regime is a ruse to de­lay and ul­ti­mately deny the com­mit­tee any power.

The idea is that one third of the seats on the com­mit­tee will go to the regime, a third to the op­po­si­tion and a fur­ther third to in­de­pen­dents, some of whom would be pro­posed by the UN. But the regime has con­sis­tently ob­jected to any but the most an­o­dyne of op­po­si­tion mem­bers and now re­fuses to al­low the UN to even pro­pose in­de­pen­dents.

In any case, a new con­sti­tu­tion, if one were ever drafted, would not solve the two is­sues it is meant to ad­dress – even aside from the fact that the lack of Arab con­sen­sus on a new course for Syria or a seat at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table in these dis­cus­sions re­mains a stick­ing point, as Ahmed Aboul Gheit, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Arab League, said on the side­lines of the Manama Di­a­logue.

But set­ting aside that hur­dle, the regime will never al­low gen­uine op­po­si­tion any rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which means the griev­ances that sparked the upris­ing will re­main and there will be no jus­tice for those killed, maimed, dis­pos­sessed or forcibly re­moved from their homes. There will be no truth about what hap­pened to the tens of thou­sands who have dis­ap­peared af­ter be­ing de­tained by the regime and no rec­on­cil­i­a­tion among the com­mu­ni­ties af­fected.

Nor would a new con­sti­tu­tion solve the refugee cri­sis. One of the rea­sons why Ger­many and France have been per­suaded to back the cre­ation of a new con­sti­tu­tion is be­cause they be­lieve it would in­flu­ence the de­ci­sion of Syr­ian refugees to re­turn home.

Yet with Bashar Al As­sad re­main­ing in place, it is un­likely many would feel safe enough to go home. I’ve ar­gued pre­vi­ously that the most likely out­come is for Rus­sia to per­suade the regime to ac­cept fresh elec­tions, which would be con­vinc­ingly “won” by the regime, thereby of­fer­ing a route back to in­ter­na­tional re­spectabil­ity.

But on the ground, this would be the same old As­sad regime – the one that ini­tially shot peace­ful protesters, that tor­tured men and women to death and that now still leads to the dis­ap­pear­ance of refugees who have re­turned home – mean­ing few of those Syr­i­ans who felt threat­ened enough to leave would feel safe re­turn­ing.

The truth is that at­tempts to end the con­flict have not gone well for the West and es­tab­lish­ing peace is go­ing just as badly. There is lit­tle that can be done now to stop Mr Al As­sad re­main­ing pres­i­dent of Syria in­def­i­nitely, and Euro­pean pow­ers and Turkey know it. A new con­sti­tu­tion is merely a means of repack­ag­ing the in­evitable, with some kind of im­print of them play­ing a part in ne­go­ti­a­tions. On the ground, noth­ing will change and for Syr­i­ans, any new con­sti­tu­tion will not be worth the pa­per it is printed on.

Western pow­ers have been out­ma­noeu­vred by Rus­sia and As­sad, who will never give the op­po­si­tion a real voice

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