Alwaght- Holding the 11th round of Syria peace talks in Astana signaled a collective consensus on the need for dialogue on laying the foundation for a political structure in order to start a new period in the war-ravaged country.
Before that, the war pushed the international actors with influence on the Syrian developments to have conflicting views on what issues should be prioritized as themes of the peace talks. Such conflict of views led to the failure of the eight rounds of Geneva talks. On the other hand, the Astana process agreements were implemented on the ground without a serious involvement of the Western sides and also the United Nations.
But now a majority of the international players in Syria almost do not disagree— at least in their stated political stances— that the ground is ready for the crisis-hit nation to form a constitution committee. The West, finding Damascus the upper hand holder amid game-changing victories over the Western-backed militants and restoring large tracts of land from the militants, appears to support the idea because it finds the political process as the main window through which it can pursue its main aim of changing the current Syrian political System. The pro-Damascus parties, on the other hand, support the committee because they want to stabilize Syria and put an end to the eight-year-old crisis in the strategic region.
Despite the international consensus, what happened at the Thursday Astana summit was that no certain agreement was reached on forming the constitution committee and parties decided to finalize an agreement at the next meetings.
Shortly after the meeting, the US Department of State Spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement said that the Astana process by Russia, Iran, and Turkey to end the Syrian conflict has only led to a "stalemate" in efforts to establish a constitutional committee crucial to a political settlement. Her statement came after comments by outgoing UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura who had said that there was "no tangible progress” in the efforts to move out of the ten-month-long stalemate in the process of composition of the constitutional committee at two days of talks which ended Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana. These US and UN comments on the outcome of the two-day Astana talks did not agree with the vision of the Russians and even the representative of the Syrian opposition body. Ahmed Ta’ama, the head of the opposition delegation to the process said that the only remaining disagreement is on the list of the independent members of the committee. Aside from these all, what is hindering a comprehensive agreement on the constitution committee?
New constitution: reforming or transforming?
There is a deep gap of views between the foreign actors and also the opposition and the central government. Their disagreement derives from a simple question: Will the new constitution transform the established political system of Syria or its main aim is introducing required reforms with the nature of the current political system remaining intact?
Beside the disputes over the future of the President Bashar al-Assad— for example, the West, Turkey, and the opposition want no place for Assad in the future of the country, disregarding the Syrian people’s will—, there is a debate over should the post-war Syria be administered as a federal system or remain in its present form of administration. The Western parties along with their regional and Syrian allies—mainly the Kurds— struggle to federalize Syria through the new constitution, a project they failed to realize via eight years of imposed war on Damascus.
Geneva or Astana-Sochi initiatives?
Yet another obstacle ahead of the new constitution is the Western distrust in the Astana and Sochi peace initiatives launched by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The West’s rejection of confidence in these initiatives has largely damaged their credibility as vehicles designed to carry Syria to calm. Since the beginning, the West only recognized the UN-sponsored Geneva peace initiative and still insists that the Syrian case should be returned to Geneva.
Russia finds this Western behavior obstructing the peace process. The Russian representative to the Syrian talks Alexander Lavreniev after the talks commented on the absence of the Eastern Euphrates Kurds’ representatives and blamed the US for the absence. He said Moscow has always supported the Syrian Kurds’ participation in the political settlement. He meant the Kurds who are present in northeastern regions of Syria which are under control the US military and are yet to join the peace talks.
After the talks, the State Department’s spokeswoman blamed the “stalemate” on the Sochi-Astana initiatives. Nauert said establishment and convening of the constitution committee by year's end "is vital to a lasting de-escalation and a political solution to the conflict."
Another force behind the absence of the Kurds of the northeast from the process is Turkey. The Ankara-Kurdish hostility is a serious challenge to the success of the settlement.
Constitution committee formation preconditions
The presence of the foreign forces in Syria forms another major hurdle ahead of the advancement of efforts for the constitution committee. The Syrian government, as well as the international laws, deem the uninvited military deployment an act of aggression and occupation. Turkey and the US hold territories in the northern and eastern Syria and even set up several military bases there. The foreign presence overshadows the Syrian sovereignty. That is why Damascus argues that any cooperation and agreement on a new constitution requires the withdrawal of the foreign forces, obliteration of terrorism, return of the central government’s rule over the whole Syrian soil, restoration of stability, and return of the displaced Syrians to their homes. But the opposition groups and their foreign backers insist that dialogue should go while they maintain the lands and arms. That is how the unsettled constitution committee challenge is tied to other unsolved challenges like Idlib case and the foreign military presence, a complex interconnection making reaching a settlement a hard job.