Sunday, 28 November 2021 09:17 GMT

Rewriting Syria’s Constitution Has Failed. Time For Plan B


(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Faisal Al Yafai

The U.N.’s special envoy for Syria scarcely needed to appear before reporters recently to call the latest round of negotiations on a new Syrian constitution “a big disappointment.” What else, barely five months after Bashar Assad won an election, could they be?

The interminable talking shop that the process has become has rumbled on for years; years in which representatives from the regime, the opposition and civil society have met intermittently and practically pointlessly. “We lack a proper understanding on how to move that process forward,” Geir Pederson, the U.N. envoy, said on Friday.

What has moved forward are the Syrian regime’s plans to win the civil war. Now, almost in control of the whole country and with no genuine possibility of regime change or even reform, it is time to admit the constitutional talks have not worked and should be scrapped. The fig leaf of reform is a failure. It is time for Plan B.

While the Geneva process and its delegates have talked intermittently, Assad, backed by Russia, has fought relentlessly.

The whole purpose of rewriting the constitution – according to the U.N. Security Council's Resolution 2254, which forms the basis of the talks – was to pave the way for free and fair elections under that constitution. That made sense in 2015, when the resolution was passed, because Assad had just won an election the previous year and it seemed possible he may agree to an amended constitution in the future to end the fighting.

But much has changed since then, in particular the intervention by Russia on the regime side, which happened that year. Now, having won another election, and essentially in control of the country, there is no possibility the regime will accept any constitutional amendments. Does the U.N. intend to keep talking until the next election in 2028? All the talks do now is provide a fig leaf for the regime to claim it is seriously participating in negotiations. That fig leaf should be stripped away.

Instead, the same delegations should be given a more tightly-defined remit for negotiations, focused, especially, on political prisoners; on maintaining rights and protections for refugees who return; and on the status of Idlib, the only province beyond regime control.

Those are three policy areas that, if the regime were willing to accept limited reform, could make a big difference to Syrians inside the country by offering information on where their family members held as prisoners are, and help those refugees who want to find a way to return home but are concerned about arbitrary arrest by the regime.

Critics will say that scrapping the constitutional talks de facto accepts the victory of the regime and removes the pressure for regime change. But that pressure has faded, and not merely because of gains by the armies of Assad.

A maximal approach to negotiations may have worked when it seemed as if the United States might remain involved.

But since April, the Biden administration has signaled it will treat America’s chief legal weapon, the Caesar Act, very differently to the Trump era. The 2019 law allows Washington to impose sweeping sanctions on those who work with the Assad regime. The Trump administration used the Caesar Act multiple times; since the Biden administration came in, it has not been used once.

That reversal has allowed Arab allies to begin formulating their own policy on Syria, with the tacit understanding that the U.S. will look the other way.

The phone call at the start of October between King Abdullah of Jordan and Assad – the first in 10 years – was called the beginning of the return of Assad to the Arab fold.

But in fact the April reopening of the border between the two countries was a test run, to see if Jordanian companies would risk being sanctioned by the U.S. for dealing with Syria. In September, days before the phone call from King Abdullah, the border was fully reopened. It followed another trial balloon from another U.S. Arab ally, when Egypt agreed to export natural gas to Lebanon – via Syria.

Taken together, it is clear that Joe Biden has taken a “see no evil” approach to Syria, allowing Arab allies to go their own way and restart relations. This is the inevitable result of Biden’s focus on domestic issues - the so-called “building back boring” policy that prioritizes economic issues over far-flung political disputes. The scramble for Damascus is real.

Against that backdrop, for the U.N. and western governments to bury their collective heads in the sand and continue purposeless negotiations is to stand by as the world changes around them.

Pretending the regime can still be forced to accept a new constitution or that it is concerned by external condemnation of its unfree and unfair elections is pointless. There will be no transition from the Assad regime, and there will be no new constitution. Perhaps, in 2015, that was a plausible, if challenging, outcome. But in 2021, it is mere fantasy.

There are, instead, real political successes that could be achieved, ones that could take hundreds of thousands, perhaps more, of Syrians out of the refugee camps and back into their homes; the kinds of imperfect, even grubby compromises that are hard to justify, but which could make real contributions to the lives of millions. A Plan B that would take all the institutional backing of the U.N. and redirect it towards a politics that, while certainly not pretty, perhaps would have a chance at change.

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.

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