After two years of wrangling, a rare success. In the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced that the long-delayed committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution had finally been agreed. At the summit, the UN’s special envoy, Geir Pedersen, was keen to talk up the positive aspects of the agreement. “This is Syrians sitting together for the first time after eight years,” he said.
But he could not guarantee the process would end with free and fair elections. That is unsurprising, because it won’t. It will end with Bashar al-Assad still in power, having won a new election.
Rewriting Syria’s constitution without a guarantee that Assad will step down is a trap, a trap that the United Nations, desperate not to be outflanked by Russia and its allies, has stepped into. Apart from giving the appearance of some UN-directed political progress, what does Assad stand to lose from rewriting the constitution? And what do the Syrian people – including those in exile – stand to gain?
Asked that way, it seems obvious that there is no end-goal to the rewriting of the constitution that would either limit the current regime’s power, or remove Assad from office, or even create conditions for a free and fair election.
What the long, slow work of the constitutional committee will do is create just enough of a veneer of reform to persuade those who already want normalization with the regime to accept it. After years outside the fold of nations, the United Nations has just handed the Assad regime a way back.
For Russia, redrafting the constitution is a key part of its strategy to get other countries to pay for Syria’s reconstruction. But the West, in particular the countries of the European Union, have a real incentive to offer the regime a way back, for one simple reason: refugees.
Years of the migrant crisis have convinced European capitals, particularly in the south and east of the continent, whose populations are most resistant to new arrivals, that the only realistic option is for Syria to be made safe for refugees
Years of the migrant crisis have convinced European capitals, particularly in the south and east of the continent, whose populations are most resistant to new arrivals, that the only realistic option is for Syria to be made safe for refugees.
For those countries, Resolution 2254, the original 2015 UN resolution that merely specified “political transition” in Syria without a definition, is both an obstacle and an opportunity. If the meaning of “political transition” could be massaged sufficiently, and the regime could be persuaded to reform slightly, for example, releasing some detainees and handing a bit more power to parts of the country away from Damascus, it may be possible to get EU-wide agreement on releasing reconstruction funds. That would ease the pressure on European countries by allowing more Syrians to go home and stopping others from leaving.
It is chiefly for those reasons that there is a political process. The idea that a redrafted constitution will somehow save Syria or help bring it together or remove Assad is misguided. It relies on a mistaken belief of how a new constitution could restrict the regime.
Syria has a constitution. It has just never been used in modern times. For nearly 50 years after the Baath Party came to power in 1963, a state of emergency suspended the constitution. The state of emergency was only lifted in 2011 at the very start of the uprising, as part of a package of reforms by the government to try to stop the protest movement following the trajectory of other Arab Spring countries. That means that most Syrians have only lived under the constitution during the civil war.
What difference, then, would a new constitution make, apart from giving the appearance of political progress? Even backers of the UN’s approach admit this. In its statement to the UN Security Council welcoming the announcement, the UK noted “the problems of Syria were not caused by flaws in the existing constitution, but rather how that constitution was implemented and the regime’s repressive policies.”
In that case, a new constitution hardly is the answer to restricting Assad’s power, removing him from power or getting justice for those Syrians who have been killed or dispossessed. A new constitution could be as easily suspended as the current one. All it would require is a reason – and, after all, as Walid al-Mouallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said at the General Assembly, parts of the country still are under occupation by foreign troops.
Nor are fresh elections the answer. Recall that Assad did win re-election as president in 2014, in the midst of one of the bloodiest phases of the civil war. Another election, now with the government back in control of most of the country, would be easily won.
No, what a new constitution really does is open up is a path to normalization. New presidential elections are scheduled for 2021, or in around 20 months’ time, a plausible enough time frame for a nominally redrafted constitution, leading to new elections that would without a doubt return Assad to power. It would be the merest veneer of reform, but for a resurgent Russia and a weary EU, it might be enough to offer political coverage for reconstruction funds.
The days of believing that Bashar al=Assad might leave power are over. In the corridors of Europe, resignation has set in; the Assad regime has outfought its military opponents and outlasted its political ones.
Bashar al-Assad is within touching distance of winning the war. With the formation of the constitutional committee, the United Nations has now handed him a roadmap to winning the peace.
This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.