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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

The Syrian Constitutional Committee: A Great Advancement or a False Hope?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


Syria’s civil war of eight and a half years[1] has had many grave consequences, one of which has been a great national and international divide over the conflict. However, for the first time since the start of the war, a Constitutional Committee has met in Geneva this October in the Council Chamber of the UN[2] to have “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led”[3] talks. This included 150 delegates from the Syrian Government, their opposition, and from the civil society.[4] After almost two years of discussion, the UN has enabled all parties to come together and deal with the task of “reforming the Constitution before it is put to the vote of the Syrian people”.[5] Many have deemed this meeting practically miraculous, with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, opening the committee by saying, “I know it is not easy for all of you to be here together in this room… But the fact you are here, face to face, is a powerful sign of hope for all Syrians, everywhere.”[6]

Others are less convinced that there is hope for the committee, or even Syria itself.













The last amendments made to the Constitution were in 2012 “in response to the civil unrest that had begun the previous year”.[7] However, as we can see, these amendments simply allowed President al-Assad and the Baath Party to practically have “unchallenged powers” and be “in control of the country’s judiciary, army and security forces”.[8] This is something that caused the opposition group in Syria to rise up against the government, disagreeing with the amount of power they had. The Syrian government has also recently recognised that this power needs to be amended, Ahmad Kuzbari (the government’s co-chair) stating that his side was willing to re-evaluate the 2012 constitution, “or even draft a new one if that would bring positive changes to the life of Syrians”.[9] This demonstrates how the opposition and the government are finally starting to show signs of being willing to cooperate, Hadi al-Bahra, the opposition leader, confirming that the rebel group is “determined to work with the government to find common ground.”[10] After all, it is arguably in the interests of the thousands of people to find peace.

Regardless, it is unfortunately not as simple as it may seem.


In reality, despite having a so-called Constitution, there is in fact no rule of law in Syria at this point in time.[11]

Instead, President al-Assad controls the country through the use of Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Political Security, and the General Intelligence.[12] As Ford potentially rightly argues, there are many examples of continuous violation of the Syrian Constitution. These include the government destroying hospitals and killing thousands of civilians despite Article 22 of the constitution stating that “the state will protect the health of citizens and provide the means of treatment”.[13] Similarly, Article 42 says that Syrian citizens have the right to freedom of expression, and yet the government arrests and kills those who oppose them without a judicial trial.[14] Often, even relatives of those who openly oppose will face the same treatment despite not rebelling.[15] This calls into question whether it is possible to think the government will ever be willing to engage in positive reform, especially when they have been unable to uphold basic human rights principles, greatly contributing to the extraordinary 370,000 people killed in the conflict.[16]


Additionally, although the people of Syria may be suffering, the government’s extreme corruption provides themselves with safety. Assad has won three ‘elections’ and is already planning to run again in 2021.[17]


One therefore wonders why they would be willing to give up such enormous power now, and what has changed from when they decided to start this hideous crisis in the first place?

Many subsequently believe it is very unlikely for him and his government to agree to fair elections or take any advice from the UN.[18]


The civil war has now also become such a global conflict, adding great complexity to negotiations and decision-making. Allies of Damascus such as Russia and Iran have “made gains on the battlefield that left them few reasons to grant concessions”[19], suggesting that they will disapprove of any agreement or Constitution that does not benefit them. Such large and powerful countries will also have a great influence on the Syrian government, making matters much harder for the UN and the opposition to find peace in Syria. It can therefore be seen that the Syrian government are not planning to carry out revolutionary reform, Kuzbari adding that the Syrian government would “rule out any outcome that would overhaul status quo”.[20] Although many in the international community would argue that Syria can no longer claim to have a ‘status quo’, their government has a very different perspective. Kuzbari spoke of how the Syrian government did not agree to attend the Constitutional Committee “to build a new state” because they believe that “The Syrian Arab Republic is a state: it has a constitution, a parliament, a government, an army and institutions”.[21] This indicates that the Constitutional Committee, although an amazing step forward, will only be able to achieve so much.


This is supported by the fact that the Syrian opposition have claimed that in the first talks, “the regime delegation did not submit any proposals or ideas”.[22] Some would argue that there is still time, with the Committee planning to meet again on November 25th [23], however it seems that the opposition delegation and civil society seem to be cooperating more than the Syrian government for the time being, both having already submitted a form of proposal to the constitution-drafting committee during the first meeting.[24] The international community simply has to wait for the following meetings to unfold and hope that the Committee can form some positive solution for Syria and its Constitution.

For now, however, there is still “no handshake”[25] on agreement yet.


Kyla Haslett-Hawkins (Middle East)


SOURCES


[2] Barbara Bibbo, ‘Long-awaited Syria constitutional committee meets for first time’, (Aljazeera, 30 October 2019) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/long-awaited-syrian-constitutional-committee-meets-time-191030151424363.html> (accessed November 10 2019)


[3] BBC News, ‘Syria war: UN-backed talks on new constitution begin in Geneva’, (BBC World News, 30 October 2019) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-50233661> (accessed November 12 2019)


[4] Barbara Bibbo, ‘Long-awaited Syria constitutional committee meets for first time’, (Aljazeera, 30 October 2019) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/long-awaited-syrian-constitutional-committee-meets-time-191030151424363.html> (accessed November 10 2019)


[5] Ibid.


[6] Barbara Bibbo, ‘Long-awaited Syria constitutional committee meets for first time’, (Aljazeera, 30 October 2019) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/long-awaited-syrian-constitutional-committee-meets-time-191030151424363.html> (accessed November 10 2019)


[7] Ibid.


[8] Barbara Bibbo, ‘Long-awaited Syria constitutional committee meets for first time’, (Aljazeera, 30 October 2019) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/long-awaited-syrian-constitutional-committee-meets-time-191030151424363.html> (accessed November 10 2019)


[9] Ibid.


[10] Barbara Bibbo, ‘Long-awaited Syria constitutional committee meets for first time’, (Aljazeera, 30 October 2019) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/long-awaited-syrian-constitutional-committee-meets-time-191030151424363.html>(accessed November 10 2019)



[12] Ibid.



[14] Ibid.



[16] BBC News, ‘Syria war: UN-backed talks on new constitution begin in Geneva’, (BBC World News, 30 October 2019) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-50233661> (accessed November 12 2019)



[18] Ibid.





[22] Middle East Monitor, ‘Syria regime doesn’t present proposals at constitution drafting committee’, (Middle East Monitor, November 6 2019) <https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191106-syria-regime-doesnt-present-proposals-at-constitution-drafting-committee/>(accessed November 10 2019)



[24] Middle East Monitor, ‘Syria regime doesn’t present proposals at constitution drafting committee’, (Middle East Monitor, November 6 2019) <https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191106-syria-regime-doesnt-present-proposals-at-constitution-drafting-committee/>(accessed November 10 2019)


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