Geneva, Switzerland (AINA) -- Following a meeting with members of the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitution Committee in Geneva at the end of January, Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, lamented the slow progress of the peace process in Syria. He pointed to disagreements on the process between the two Co-Chairs, representing the Syrian Government and the Syrian Opposition. Pedersen said "a new approach to the talks is needed if they are to continue."
The Constitutional Committee was established in September 2019 under United Nations auspices with the aim to formulate a new constitution for the country. The drafting-body comprises of 45 delegates, while the full body has 150 members, equally drawn from representatives of the government, opposition groups, and civil society. The Committee's fourth session was held between 30 November and 4 December 2020. The January 29th session was the fifth gathering.
The Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) was a founding member of the Syrian National Council and part of the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, since its inception (AINA 2020-07-17). Representing Assyrians, the ADO is charged with securing the national rights of the Assyrian people in the new Syrian constitution and sends two members to the UN-led Constitutional Committee. However, it is not represented in the smaller drafting-body.
Karam Dawli, a member of ADO's Executive Committee, represents his organization in the Advisory Support Team, which consists of Assyrians, Kurds and Yazidis. He was in Geneva during the recent session of the Constitutional Committee at the United Nations.
We had the opportunity to talk with him on various topics, among them the status of the negotiations related to drafting a new Syrian constitution for the country, ADO's view on and role in this process along with the situation in the country in view of the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): Please update us on the most recent session of the drafting-body of the Constitutional Committee at the UN?
Karam Dawle (KD): The meetings of the constitutional drafting-body that took place in Geneva between January 25 and 29, 2021 did not make any progress in the constitutional process. In fact, this was not surprising; this was expected by many observers, not only by the Syrian opposition itself. The expression used by Mr. Geir Pederson, "this session is disappointing," is probably a better description of the session.
In our view, and since the start of the work of the Constitutional Committee at the end of October 2019, the delegation of the Syrian regime has engaged in irresponsible time wasting, besides evading the entitlements specified by the regulations governing the working process of the Constitutional Committee; this attitude has continued from the previous four sessions.
Therefore, Mr. Pedersen requested earlier the convening of this session, with intent to push the parties to present proposals on a methodology of discussion that would lead to the start of the process of drafting the new constitution.
However, the delegation of the government, apart from its rejection of the proposal of the opposition and that of Mr. Pedersen, did not submit any proposals, which was confirmed by Mr. Pedersen in his briefing at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva after the end of the work of the Constitutional Committee on January 29.
In all, it can be said that lack of progress and inability to set a date for the sixth session represents a challenge to the Syrian negotiating body (which represents the reference body for the constitutional committee), the United Nations, and the countries of what is known as the Small Group, led by the United States and the European Union.
AB: Why is ADO not represented in the drafting-body? And, as understood, you were present at the December session too. What are the blocking issues that hinder making progress in the negotiations?
KD: Before answering this question, it seems necessary to clarify what I think is important about the mechanism of representation in the Constitutional Committee.
Seven independent opposition parties/blocs1 send delegates to the Constitutional Committee, in its expanded form and to the drafting body. Both the ADO and the Assyrians as an ethnic group do not have a representation as an independent block within the Syrian opposition. The two delegates ADO sends to full body of Constitutional Committee, Mr. Gabriel Moshe and Mr. Abdulahad Stifo, are sent through the 'bloc' of Committee of Independents and the National Coalition respectively.
The ADO did not get any seat within the drafting-body because of many factors, the most important being the lack of acknowledgment as an independent bloc. This is an issue we are working on to settle since the formation of the commission, because it represents injustice and prejudice against the Assyrians, an indigenous national component of Syria.
Our presence within the drafting-body is important to express our vision and demands by ourselves directly during the meetings of the constitutional committee. The lack of presence however does not mean the absence of our role and our contributions to the work of the Constitutional Committee, which in turn represents the reference body for the drafting-body. No decision, position, or proposal can be passed without the approval of the expanded Constitutional Committee which we are member of.
AB: According to a press release of your organization, you have formed an Advisory Support Team consisting of Assyrians, Kurds and Yazidis. Could you explain the mission of this advisory team?
KD: The forming of an advisory team is based on an initiative of the European Center for Kurdish Studies, located in Berlin, within the framework of a project funded by the European Union, taking into consideration the imbalance in the representation of the Assyrians, Kurds, and Yazidis in the Constitutional Committee. There is a complete absence of representation of the Yazidis and the Assyrians and the nomination of one single representative of the Kurds. The Advisory Support Team tries to break the imbalance in representation of the people in focus in the Constitutional Committee.
AB: How is the view of ADO's with respect to Syria's constitution?
KD: In our view, Syria is an independent, sovereign state on all its territories recognized by the UN, and it is a multi-ethnic, multi religions and multicultural state. Its (new) constitution should guarantee the national rights of all its people, including Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis and others, with their languages recognized as national languages, where their cultures represent the essence of Syria's history and civilization.
The ADO believes that the Syrian constitution must be based on the principles of democracy, secularism, and respect for human rights, ensuring the peaceful transfer of power and the adaptation of modern laws for political parties and elections that allow equal opportunities to achieve national partnership, and ensure the representation of all Syrians in the administration of the country. Important is the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers while building a professional Syrian army subject to the executive authorities that does not interfere in politics.
We also believe that decentralization based on local administrations is the best model for managing the country and ensuring -- among others -- a more equitable distribution of wealth.
The ADO always calls for guaranteeing women's rights and the abolition of all laws and legislations that contradict the principle of equality with men, and it works to enable them to equally participate in the management and decision-making process of an administration.
ADO considers that any constitutional text should not contradict the principle of full and equal citizenship. Hence, the state that we seek must be identical with "the state of all citizens for all citizens" equally. Therefore, the name of the state should not to be attached to any national designation, religious or ideological characteristic, because that would contradicts the principle of national equality, and also it would be considered a state shy of representing all of its people, even if the name reflects the majority's designation.
People's rights should not be measured by numbers. The Assyrians are not a community that immigrated to the land of Syria, rather Syria has been their historical home for thousands of years. While Syria is derived from Assyria, today Assyrians represent what remains of the 'umbilical cord' that connects Syria to ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia as the cradle of civilization.
The same criterion also applies to the religion of the head of state and to the sources of legislation. ADO believes that the state should be neutral towards religion; that means, it should have an equal stance toward all religions, including the freedom to choose any belief or philosophical doctrine, even atheism. We believe that religion and belief is up to the individuals, its natural place is at places of worship and civil society platforms, not state institutions.
On the issue of managing national diversity, ADO considers the importance of improving the Syrian national bonding according to a new concept of the collective Syrian identity, which is drawn from the state of national, religious and cultural diversity contributing to the formation of this identity. This diversity ought to be manifested in the symbols of the state such as flag, anthem, currency, as well as in the media, education and tourism in order for everyone to feel he is a real part of this country.
AB: Has the ADO reached full agreement within Syrian opposition with respect to issues you address above, such as the name of the state (Syrian Republic vs. Syrian Arab Republic), the role of religion in the legislation, secularism, the principles of citizenship, and decentralization?
KD: Although we have consensus on many constitutional principles between the various opposition groups, whether in the Syrian National Coalition or within the Syrian negotiating body, discussions are still ongoing on several topics, including the name and identity of the state, religion of the president, role of religion in the legislation, personal civic laws, and the nature of ethnic rights for nationalities other than Arabs. In addition to all that, the degree of decentralization in the administration of the state is a matter of discussion. In this context, it must be noted that everyone agrees on freedom of religion to ensure the freedom to practice religious rites.
But we cannot describe the scene, the position to the issues above, as between two parties within the opposition body, because the position of the groups of the negotiating body cannot be placed in one order vis-à-vis all of those principles.
For example, those who insist on the survival of the adjective of Arabism in the name of the state, refuse in return to specify the religion of the President. On the other hand, it must be mentioned that the regime insists on the Arab Islamic identity of Syria and regards Islam as the main source of legislation, and Islam as the religion of the head of state. As for ethnic/national rights, there is an agreement among the majority of opposition groups on the right of non-Arab nationalities to practice their language and culture, with differences regarding Syriac, Kurdish and Turkish as second official languages in regions in which they constitute a majority.
There are also differences in positions concerning the definition of the 'Syrian people' in terms of its ethnic/national components and explicitly mentioning them in the constitution. On this specific point, ADO bases its demand for constitutional recognition of the existence and national rights of the Assyrians on an equal footing with the rest of the nationalities according to the statement issued by the expanded meeting of the groups of the Syrian revolution and opposition on November 23, 2017 known as the "Riyadh 2 Statement." Unfortunately, we see in the positions of some groups a retreat from the original stance that has been agreed upon, while we consider it a reference document in the work of the negotiating body.
As for the issue of decentralization, although everyone agrees on decentralized system, but there are differences in positions regarding the degree of decentralization and the power of the central state versus that of the regional administrations.
Another matter that must be taken into consideration is related to the general tendency in the Syrian society where a pre- assumed notion that the Arab Islamic identity is a matter taken for granted in the future Syrian state.
It is useful to note that the negotiating body has not yet issued any official document that resolves these points yet. Rather, it focuses on proposals on general constitutional principles agreed upon so far.
Some of the opposition forces see that the referendum on the constitution will or should have the final say on these pending issues. Though, the Assyrian Democratic Organization insists that the principles of justice, equality, respect for human rights and the guarantee of the rights of ethnic groups should be ranked among the founding constitutional principles, which can't be amended except under very special conditions and so that no legislation is enacted that contradicts those constitutional principles or what some call supra-constitutional principles.
In this context, I need to point out that these issues are essential for the future of our nation. Therefore, we need the efforts of everyone, from political parties, institutions, and personalities to support our political demands for Syria's future. Assyrians need international support to secure their presence. It is not enough to feel that you have the right, but more important is what you are doing to achieve that right.
AB: You mention international support. Could you explain the positons of the representatives of the countries of the United States, Britain, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and the European Union which follow the UN-led consultations closely?
KD: In the context of our role within the Advisory Support Team we were able to explain our constitutional vision in meetings with representatives of many countries. Their positions were identical to and supportive of our vision and demands, as they consider these self-evident, matters that are no longer topics of discussion in their own countries. They also expressed their support for our request to form an Advisory Support Team affiliated with the Office of the UN Special Envoy.
Also these countries are in agreement regarding the political settlement in accordance with the UN Resolution 2254. And they realize the importance of the opposition to remain united to overcome all internal differences impeding the merits of the political process and settlement. They also affirm that they will continue to apply political pressure and isolation on the regime and link the on-going economic sanctions to the political process to achieve real progress toward a political solution.
AB: Turkey seems to be still the major backer of the Syrian opposition. How would you assess Turkey's influence on the opposition's vision regarding the future of the Syria?
KD: For more accuracy in the use of expressions, the Syrian opposition today includes several bodies, with the exception of the seven groups that make up the negotiating body, who do not receive Turkish support. There are dozens of political parties and alliances opposing the regime outside that framework, including armed radical Islamic factions. Therefore, this question applies to the Syrian National Coalition and a group of armed factions listed under the name "Syrian National Army" deployed in parts at the northern regions.
Politically, no one can deny the existence of a Turkish influence on the positions of the coalition forces, which may appear at the tactical rather than the strategic level, and this of course is imposed by geopolitical factors as a result of Turkey's long common border with Syria and the transformation of the Syrian revolution into an armed struggle. This of course is not an exception in Syria, many political movements and armed opposition resort to one of the neighboring countries by virtue of geography, and this of course has a negative and positive consequences and implications.
On the other hand, I do not think that Turkey has any role in terms of the coalition's vision for the future constitution of Syria. What some might expect from the manifestations of harmony or sometimes coincidence between the vision of the Turkish Justice and Development Party led by President Erdogan and some of the forces in the coalition, is considered natural, because the Syrian political scene by its nature involves many diverse politically and ideologically motivated actors.
AB: In context of pressure you mentioned above, very recently, 95 international personalities campaigned for the lifting of the economic sanctions against Syria in a letter published on January 21, 2021 to US President Joe Biden. Two Patriarchs of the Syriac Churches signed the petition. The dramatic appeal to improve the catastrophic humanitarian situation of the Syrian population was supported by press releases and letters to politicians in Germany, France, Great Britain and other countries. What is your view on this?
KD: First of all, in principle, neither I nor any Syrian would not wish well for his family and the people of his country, working to provide all that he can relieve them of the heavy daily suffering that they have been living in for about ten years.
Therefore, I am in favor of providing all kinds of support to the Syrian people, to be done or carried out by relevant international institutions so that they are protected, secured and able to reach all Syrian regions without exception, and that neither the regime nor its affiliated organizations interfere in the delivery and distribution of aid to the people under their control.
We must not forget that the sanctions Western powers (US and Europe) imposed on persons and institutions affiliated with the Syrian regime do not include the humanitarian aspects, especially food and medical, and COVID-19 supplies.
AB: Last year in July, the so-called 'Peace and Freedom Front' was established that brought together the Kurdish National Council in Syria, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Syrian Future Movement, and the Arab Council in Al-Jazeera and the Euphrates. What do you expect this front to accomplish that ADO and the other groups cannot agree upon within the Syrian Opposition?
KD: This Front acquires its special importance from several aspects, the most important of which is that the alliance between these founding groups of the Peace and Freedom Front is a natural collaboration, representing the ethnic groups united by many common issues that bring them closer to each other by virtue of geography and history, extended by the experience of joint interaction within the frameworks of the opposition.
The fundamental vision of "future Syria" that they share is greater than any other aspect that bind them. The Front provides the advantage of being able to extend bridges between various opposition groups to achieve greater coordination and consensus, as far as the political vision is concerned. Also, the declaration of this alliance represents a message of reassurance; peace and peaceful coexistence for the inhabitants of the northeastern regions of Syria contrary to some propaganda and rhetoric that contribute to sowing the seeds of separation between the people of the region - Arabs, Kurds, and Assyrians.
Although the Peace and Freedom Front project is not limited to the northern and eastern region. The northern region by comparison, with its diversity and richness, and the challenges it faces, makes it an arena for an international and regional conflict that is reflected in the entire Syrian scene, which prompted us to unite the efforts of various components or groups of the region to form a real partnership to face existing challenges and to play the role entrusted to us as political forces working to restore security and peace and achieve political transition in the country. In a way these are the aspirations of all Syrian ethnic and religious components.
AB: Last September you were part of a delegation of the Peace and Freedom Front to visit Moscow and meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the Syrian situation. Similar meeting were obviously held with Turkey and US representatives. What is the outcome of this talks?
KD: It seems that so far the announcement of the establishment of the Front and the dissemination of its political vision has met with acceptance by several countries, the first of which was the United States of America, which took the initiative, through its representatives at Al Jazirah, Syria, to hold a meeting with the Front, where they affirmed a supporting view to its vision and positions.
Also, a delegation from the Front met with Mr. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, who expressed his support for our political vision and optimism that the front, with its diversity, will be able to play a prominent role in achieving a political settlement in accordance with international legitimate decisions concerning the country. A delegation of the Front had also a meeting with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Mr. Çavusoglu, who listened to the delegation explaining its goals and political vision. He expressed his satisfaction and showed interests to hold further dialogue and consultations.
The Front has also received positive messages from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, many European countries and Canada. The Front will have more meetings to explain its vision not only at the international level, but also with the Syrian opposition forces in an effort to bridge the gap in viewpoints and advance a unified position on various issues related to the political process and the desired constitution.
1 The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Commission, representatives of the armed factions, the Cairo platform, the Moscow platform, the Kurdish National Council, the National Personalities Committee also known as the Independent Committee.