Syria Brief: Political Update – January 2022
Prospects remain gloomy for the constitutional committee. Despite initial positive comments from the Russians that there would be further rounds after October’s last session, no movement has been observed on this front for new talks to be convened soon. In contrast, the Russian Special Envoy made a controversial statement last month that the constitutional committee should not be aimed at changing powers in Damascus, which shocked opposition and civil society circles. Current diplomatic energy is being exerted towards the UN Special Envoy’s ideas around “steps-for-steps” to see if there is potential with this new approach to encourage positive behaviour change from the regime in exchange for concessions from the international community.
The political environment is looking pessimistic with regards to prospects of progress on the constitutional committee. The last round in Geneva, in October 2021 ended in antagonism between the parties with the Special Envoy declaring the round “a big disappointment”.
On 27th December 2021, the Russian Special Envoy Alexander Lavrentiev made some inflammatory remarks to Russia’s TASS news agency that “The government [of Syria] is satisfied by the current constitution, and in its opinion no amendments are needed… if somebody pursues the aim of creating a new constitution for the sake of changing the powers of the president and thereby trying to change power in Damascus, this road leads nowhere.” He declared that it was unfair that the failure of CC rounds was always blamed on the regime when in reality all parties were to blame.
These comments are particularly striking given Lavrentiev’s previous open engagement with both the opposition and the civil society delegations in Geneva and his conciliatory remarks to delegates that they were right over their criticisms of the regime and that he hopes there would be another two rounds of talks before the end of the year. This major public shift in the Russian position was seen by many as demonstrating Russia’s real position that it was never serious about reaching a political solution according the UN resolution 2254.
However, one Moscow-based Russia expert commented that one should place too much meaning on these comments since the Russians often use such remarks as trial balloons, he said Russia is “ready to blow up its discourse and amend it within 24 hours when a new and serious proposal is put on the table”.
Lavrentiev’s comments provoked quite a reaction within official opposition circles. Opposition and civil society parties expressed their disbelief at the remarks that came as a severe blow to the constitutional committee process. The comments were unexpected, particularly since the CC was the brainchild of the Russians, born out of the Sochi congress in January 2018. Even those parties that are closer to Moscow were shocked by these comments: the loudest criticism actually came from Qadri Jamil, the head of the opposition’s Popular Will Party.
The Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) held a meeting in response (28.12), during which there were calls for the SNC to take a stronger position with regards to their participation in talks in Geneva. However, the majority, led by Anas al-Abdah the head of the SNC, refused saying their withdrawal would provoke criticism from the international community. The SNC then issued a statement in which they said the Russians are contradicting UN resolutions. In opposition to this weak position, the spokesman of the SNC, Ibrahim al-Jabawi, announced his withdrawal from the SNC. Jabawi is a senior figure in the SNC, a former high-ranking officer who defected from the police.
The Syrian regime has shown little interest in holding a new round of talks for the constitutional committee (CC). Despite visits to Damascus, the UN has not received any positive indication about a coming round of the CC from the regime.
For observers of the CC, it appeared the regime was uncomfortable with the pace with which the last round developed, particularly since the parties began submitting text. This development in the CC’s methodology demonstrated seriousness towards the process that the regime seemed unready to commit to, hence their intransigence on the fifth day of proceedings. Typifying their attitude to the process, so far, the regime is calling the CC “Constitutional Committee Discussions”, with its delegation called the “government-backed delegation”, which demonstrates the regime’s positioning that neither does the process carry weight nor the delegation have full-authority.
While some speculate that another round of the constitutional committee may take place in February, current indicators demonstrate that the focus of the political process is now being orientated towards Pederson’s “steps-for-steps” approach. Pederson has begun bilateral talks with different stakeholders over this approach and it is expected this new approach will be the subject of political capital in the upcoming phase.
At the moment the “steps-for-steps” approach is in its preliminary discussion phase with the UN Special Envoy Geir Pederson currently holding consultations in Geneva with the main states engaged on Syria. It appears that the envoy is exploring the viability of a more pragmatic approach where the regime would be engaged on certain defined steps that illustrate positive behaviour change, and would receive some incentive from western states in return. While the range, scope and formula of these steps on both sides greatly varies, an example of this approach could be the regime releasing of prisoners, and in turn the international community would respond with positive measures on their side, for instance furthering early recovery programming or limited sanctions relief.