Turkey, Russia and Iran, the three parties involved in the Astana peace process, have met in Geneva. While the final list of names for a Syrian Constitutional Committee hasn’t materialised, the three stakeholders plan to meet in the New Year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) shake hands as they attend a news conference after talks on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland (December 18, 2018).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) shake hands as they attend a news conference after talks on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland (December 18, 2018). (Denis Balibouse / Reuters)

UN-sponsored talks on establishing a committee to create a new Syrian constitution will be continued in early 2019 following a meeting between Turkey, Iran and Russia in Geneva on Tuesday. But the talks have yet to produce a concrete agreement on the future of Syria. 

The constitutional committee will have 150 members, 50 of whom will be selected by Damascus, 50 by the opposition and 50 by the UN. The three countries behind the Astana peace process, created to address the Syrian conflict in parallel to the Geneva peace process, set the groundwork by providing names for the three lists. The names on the UN list proved to be more controversial.

Bashar al Assad’s regime would rather have the old constitution amended instead of a new constitution implemented.

Here we explain what is going on with the Syrian Constitutional Committee talks.

Why did the talks get pushed to the next year?

The talks stalled, but the parties are pleased with the direction they have taken. There was some disagreement reportedly stemming from the ‘third list’ which is the list of 50 members to be selected from civil society and ‘independent’ actors.

The UN-suggested the ‘Middle Third List’ include delegates that represent Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders, and women. But the list apparently did not satisfy all the parties in the talks. 

Russian media has reported that the talks were not finalised because the Astana peace process countries had some disagreements over the proposed names of the constitutional committee with the UN. According to sources from the Astana trio, the UN has refused to approve people considered by the three Astana countries because of Western pressure. 

Turkey has also indicated that some of the names on the third list seem to be new. “The UN and us need to evaluate who these people are,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. 

“We always say that the lists will be inclusive and balanced. We will seek to strike a balance between (the Assad) regime and the opposition,” Cavusoglu emphasised. 

While praising the "significant joint input" from Turkey, Russia and Iran, UN envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura, who is leaving his post at the end of the year, told a news conference that the three powers had not succeeded in finalising a workable political forum for Syria.

According to the US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, "Syrian opposition leaders are not yet satisfied," with the trio’s list. 

Cavusoglu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and their Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif attended the three-way talks, meeting with De Mistura after the negotiations. 

Following the meeting, the three countries released a joint statement read by Lavrov, emphasising “the realisation of compromise and constructive dialogue”. 

What next?

Since the launch of the Astana peace process, Turkey, Russia and Iran have worked together to achieve a stable and peaceful atmosphere in the war-ravaged country, which has seen hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced.

They will keep negotiating to convene the committee in early 2019. 

Cavusoglu said the parties had made “important contributions” to the creation of the constitutional panel. “The UN will of course carry out necessary work on the nominated names in the coming process,” he said.

Lavrov agreed with his Turkish counterpart, saying that the countries have made “efforts aimed at convening the first session of the Syrian constitution committee early next year”. 

He said: “These steps will lead to the launch of a viable and lasting Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated political process.”

Despite the disagreement between the three powers and the United Nations, De Mistura appeared to be cautious but hopeful about the process.

"I believe there is an extra mile to go in the marathon effort to ensure the necessary package for a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee, and for including a balanced chairing arrangement and drafting body and voting threshold - to be established under UN auspices in Geneva," De Mistura said. 

However, last month, when briefing the UN Security Council, De Mistura painted a bleaker picture, one in which no Syrian Constitutional Committee would be formed.

He said that credibility, balance, inclusion and international legitimacy remain the “litmus test” for the committee.

If that test were to fail, he said: “We may have to conclude that we may not be possible to form a constitutional committee, credible and inclusive at this stage.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the regime’s Foreign Minister Walid al Moualem as having told state media on December 17 that it was “early to talk about” the constitutional committee starting work. 

Despite the Assad regime’s efforts to drag out writing a new constitution for the country, both Turkey, which opposes the regime, and Russia, which backs the regime, are still optimistic about the developments. 

Cavusoglu maintained that Turkey sought to work on a peace and democracy process that is executed and embraced by Syrians, rather than being pushed on them.

Cavusoglu had also earlier said that Turkey and other world powers would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election. Turkey considers a democratic election would follow once a constitution supported by Ankara were put in place. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is visiting Ankara to attend the Fifth High Council Meeting for Strategic Cooperation. During this visit the two countries are expected to discuss Syria, in addition to other political, economic and cultural issues, such as migration and US sanctions.

Source: TRT World