Russia pushes for constitutional committee amid uncertainty over Idlib

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Article Summary
As a military campaign on Idlib looms uncertain, Russia, Turkey and Iran make progress on a constitutional committee in Geneva.

On Sept. 10 and 11, deputy foreign ministers from the Astana trio (Russia, Iran and Turkey) met in Geneva to consult with the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The discussions helped achieve a breakthrough on the issue of the Syrian Constitutional Committee — one of the most critical items on the agenda of political resolution and peacemaking in Syria. The diplomats managed to agree upon the lists of committee members from the government and the opposition and to design a plan to create a third list composed of representatives of Syrian civil society. The lists are supposed to include 150 people altogether.

Alexander Lavrentiev, Putin’s special envoy for Syria who led the Russian delegation at the consultations, said the government and opposition lists will have to be approved by all sides after the civil society list is discussed further. Lavrentiev said this still was a “fragile mechanism” and one cannot “upset the balance,” meaning attempts to turn the civil society list into an extension of the government would be unacceptable.

According to some reports, a technical working group of diplomats from the three guarantor nations will be established to continue the discussion about the lists.

The format of the committee’s future work was also outlined during the talks in Geneva. A council of 45 members of the committee will be created specifically to design a new Syrian constitution or amend the existing one. Although the procedure for the formation of the council is still not fully clear, it is known that the body will be selected following the same principles as the committee itself, including having an equal number of representatives of the regime, opposition and civil society. This could be a compromise involving the numbers of people selected to make important decisions: De Mistura had sought to cut the number of committee members from 150 to 40-50 people. It is also unclear who will become the committee’s chairperson. Russia insists on a government official for this position, while Turkey and the opposition rebels disagree.

Discussions on the formation of the committee started immediately after the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in January. However, it took the talks in Geneva to break the process free from deadlock and proceed with practical measures.

It seems that the current — and still too limited — success in the promotion of peace in Syria stems from the way the situation around Idlib has changed. On the one hand, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a firm stance against the possibility of a military operation in this rebel stronghold and even moved to deploy additional troops there. On the other hand, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin proved his ability to reach compromises. The combination of the two factors appears to have delayed, if not suspended, the next large-scale armed campaign in northwestern Syria.

Any positive shifts in the process of the Constitutional Committee’s creation would have been nearly impossible had the meeting in Geneva been taking place during heavy fighting in Idlib. Moreover, such consultations likely would not have even taken place, considering that Turkey has alluded that it would leave the Astana trio should Idlib be attacked. At first, the opposition had refused to take part in the committee because the decision to establish the body had been made during the congress in Sochi, which took place at the same time that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was conducting large-scale operations in the southeastern part of the province, including a mass bombing of civil infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the threat of an assault on Idlib still exists. If it does actually start, any agreements reached on the political resolution up until now, including those related to the committee, may be derailed. Assad's regime, expecting a victory over the opposition, would lose all incentive to pursue a political track, expecting to ultimately get the upper hand over the insurgents. Moreover, the “real” opposition, with its fighting force destroyed and its control over Syria lost entirely, would not be accepted as an active participant. In other words, the very need for either peacemaking or the reforms would become irrelevant.

Some statements during the consultations in Geneva, however, actually give reason to be optimistic about a further delay in the military campaign of the regime and its allies. It mostly depends on Turkey’s ability to solve the problem of radicals in Idlib on its own, using groups loyal to Ankara as an instrument on the ground.

Lavrentiev pointed out during the Geneva meeting that Turkey is ultimately responsible for the separation of terrorists from the moderates in Idlib. He also emphasized that Turkey, as a member of the Astana trio, was chosen, as part of a collective process, to bear responsibility for Idlib a year and a half ago; thus, Ankara should face the “complex challenge of separating the moderate opposition from the extremist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadis.”

It is not impossible, by the way, that the parties might have reached an agreement of some kind before the Geneva encounter, during bilateral Russian-Turkish consultations on Idlib, and that the talks in Geneva merely reflect the earlier agreements. For instance, in the future, Ankara is likely to point out that positive changes in the peace process were made possible only because the de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria was kept intact. In return, Ankara may prove helpful in re-energizing various “frozen” projects within the peacemaking process that could not be carried out if the fighting ignited. This could be especially valuable for Moscow if such initiatives concerned those initiated and designed by Russia.

Therefore, if the military escalation around Idlib gradually decreases, Ankara could possibly continue influencing the Syrian opposition, making it more open to Russian suggestions related to a political resolution. In this way, Turkey could maintain Moscow’s interest in further delaying or even canceling the armed assault on Idlib. This would both help Russian initiatives be successful and counter radicals in Idlib with specific practical measures.

Kirill Semenov is an independent analyst with a yearslong record of professional study of political and military situations in the Middle East with a strong focus on conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. He is also a non-resident expert of the Russian International Affairs Council.

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