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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

The idea of a new Syrian constitution is a diplomatic fig leaf to spare the blushes of the powerless

Western powers have been completely outmanoeuvred by Russia and the Assad regime, which will never allow the opposition to have a real voice

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces attends the funeral of a commander. Delil Souleiman / AFP
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces attends the funeral of a commander. Delil Souleiman / AFP

Over the past few days, two of the forums tasked with ending the Syrian war have coalesced their efforts around the writing of a new constitution for the nation.

First, over the weekend, came a push from the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who will step down next month after four years in the job. Speaking to the UN Security Council, he seemed to pin his hopes on a new constitution being created but said Damascus was blocking the creation of a drafting committee. At last month's UN General Assembly, Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallem went so far as to warn against external intervention in the forming of a committee.

Then, on Saturday, Turkey and Russia pulled off quite a remarkable coup, getting the leaders of Germany and France to go to Istanbul and essentially endorse a plan that the Russians had first manufactured, issuing a communique calling for a drafting committee to be established before the end of the year.

They proposed this despite knowing – because Mr De Mistura had told them just hours before – that the Assad regime was stalling on the formation of the committee and refusing to accept the UN's authority in appointing members to the committee.

Cynical observers might wonder if the renewed push for the committee to be formed in the next few weeks is simply a way of allowing Mr De Mistura to leave with some diplomatic dignity at the end of November.

In any case, the idea of a new Syrian constitution is a mere diplomatic fig leaf, concocted to spare the blushes of western powers for having been comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Russia and the Syrian regime. A new constitution will not, as the leaders declared, pave the way for elections and an end to the war. The Assad regime will not allow a genuinely new constitution. And even if there was a new constitution, it would not solve the issues it is meant to address.

The sudden focus on this new constitution is puzzling, given that, from the moment it was proposed in January, it has created divisions among Syria's opposition and looked extremely unlikely to ever happen.

Recall that the proposal for a 150-member committee made up of both government and opposition figures to rewrite the constitution and pave the way for elections was first proposed at a Russian-backed conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi earlier this year, at a time when Russian fighter jets were dropping bombs in support of the Assad regime.

Mr De Mistura inexplicably took the idea back under the auspices of the UN-led Geneva process, despite leading opposition figures saying at the time that it was unworkable and the wrong moment to try it.

The opposition argued at the time that what was needed was a transitional government to prove that there would be a move away from the Assad regime. Worse, they pointed out, seeking to rewrite the constitution in Syria, at a time when war was still ongoing and the regime was fighting for its survival, was hardly conducive to a genuinely impartial process.

Still, the idea has not gone away and Mr De Mistura last week asked Russia and Turkey to push the regime to stop blocking the establishment of the committee, so that the process of writing a constitution – nearly a year after it was first proposed – can actually begin.

But there will be no new constitution. That much ought to have been clear to a seasoned diplomat. Instead, the endless debate with the regime is a ruse to delay and ultimately deny the committee any power.

The idea is that one third of the seats on the committee will go to the regime, a third to the opposition and a further third to independents, some of whom would be proposed by the UN. But the regime has consistently objected to any but the most anodyne of opposition members and now refuses to allow the UN to even propose independents.

In any case, a new constitution, if one were ever drafted, would not solve the two issues it is meant to address – even aside from the fact that the lack of Arab consensus on a new course for Syria or a seat at the negotiating table in these discussions remains a sticking point, as Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the League of Arab States, said on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue.

But, setting aside that hurdle, the regime will never allow genuine opposition any representation, which means that the grievances that sparked the uprising will remain, and there will be no justice for those killed, maimed, dispossessed or forcibly removed from their homes. There will be no truth about what happened to the tens of thousands who have disappeared after being detained by the regime, and no reconciliation among the communities affected.

Nor would a new constitution solve the refugee crisis. One of the reasons why Germany and France have been persuaded to back the creation of a new constitution is because they believe it would influence the decision of Syrian refugees to return home.

Yet with Bashar Al Assad remaining in place, it is unlikely many would feel safe enough to go home. I've argued previously that the most likely outcome is for Russia to persuade the regime to accept fresh elections, which would be convincingly “won” by the regime, thereby offering a route back to international respectability.

But on the ground, this would be the same old Assad regime – the one that initially shot peaceful protesters, that tortured men and women to death and that now still leads to the disappearance of refugees who have returned home – meaning few of those Syrians who felt threatened enough to leave would feel safe to go back.

The truth is that attempts to end the conflict have not gone well for the West and establishing peace is going just as badly. There is little that can be done now to stop Mr Al Assad remaining as president of Syria indefinitely, and European powers and Turkey know it. A new constitution is merely a means of repackaging the inevitable, with some kind of imprint of them playing a part in negotiations. On the ground, nothing will change and for Syrians, any new constitution will not be worth the paper it is printed on.