After two years of wrangling, a rare success. In the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the 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 no surprise, 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 Al Assad will step down is a trap, a trap that the United Nations, in its desperation 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 Al Assad stand to lose from rewriting the constitution? And what do the Syrian people – including those in exile – stand to gain?
Put the question the way and it seems obvious that there is no end-goal in the rewriting of the constitution that would either limit the regime’s power, or remove Al 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, particularly 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. For those countries, Resolution 2254, the original 2015 UN resolution that merely specified “political transition” in Syria without defining it, is both an obstacle and an opportunity. If the meaning of “political transition” could be massaged sufficiently, and the regime could be convinced to reform slightly, for example, by releasing some detainees and handing a bit more power to parts of the country away from Damascus, it might be possible to get EU-wide agreement on releasing reconstruction funds. That would ease the pressure on European countries as it would allow more Syrians to go home and stop 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 Al Assad is misguided. It relies on a mistaken belief in how a new constitution could restrict the regime.
Syria already 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, the constitution was suspended in a state of emergency which was only lifted in 2011 at the very start of the uprising, as part of a package of reforms to try to stop the protest movement going the same way as 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 is hardly the answer to restricting Al Assad’s power, removing him from power or getting justice for those Syrians who have been killed or dispossessed. A new constitution could be just 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 are still under occupation by foreign troops.
Nor are fresh elections the answer. After all, Al Assad was re-elected as president in 2014, amid one of the bloodiest phases of the civil war. Another election, now with the regime back in control of most of the country, would be easily won.
What a new constitution really does is open up a path to normalization. New presidential elections are scheduled for 2021, or in around 20 months’ time, a plausible enough timeframe for a nominally redrafted constitution, leading to new elections that would without a doubt return Al Assad to power. It would be the merest veneer of reform, but for a resurgent Russia and a weary EU, it may 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.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.