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Why does Russia want to remove the Syrian political process from Geneva?

By Ibrahim Hamidi

 Damascus has informed United Nations envoy Geir Pedersen that it would not send its delegation to Geneva to participate in the ninth round of the Constitutional Committee on July 25, which means freezing the Syrian political process that is held under the auspices of the UN.


The actual reason is not related to Damascus’ objection to the Committee’s mechanism or the topic of “discussions” between the two delegations – namely the government delegation, and the other representing the opposition “negotiating committee.”


In fact, the decision came upon a recommendation from Moscow. It is also not related to Russia’s objection to the Syrian constitutional reform efforts and issues, such as sovereignty, foreign agendas, and “occupations”; rather, it concerns Switzerland’s position on the Ukrainian war and its break from neutrality.


In short, Moscow is not satisfied with Switzerland’s joining Western sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine war.


What is the Russian solution?

Moscow is punishing Geneva - a major European capital for the United Nations and its institutions - and attempting to shake European unity because of Ukraine, at the lowest price, and not through Russia’s withdrawal from UN organizations or boycotting international meetings on the Syrian crisis.


The punishment came from Syria. Accordingly, Moscow asked Damascus to refrain from participating in the Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva, and suggest Sochi, Moscow, Damascus, Algeria or Muscat as possible alternative hosts.


What prompted the issue 

At the conclusion of the meetings of the eighth round of the Constitutional Committee in May, Pedersen agreed with the heads of the two government and opposition delegations - Ahmed Al-Kuzbari and Hadi Al-Bahra respectively - to hold the next round after the Eid Al-Adha holiday, between July 25-29.


At that time, Russian presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentyev was reportedly not satisfied with the Swiss authorities’ handling of entry visas for the Russian delegation and the coldness of the reception.


What does Pedersen want?

Based on the agreement between the Syrians and the regional and international sponsors in the previous round in June, Pedersen sent written invitations to Al-Kuzbari, Al-Bahra and the civil society, asking them to present some ideas on the means to accelerate the work of the committee to achieve the goal stipulated in the reference standards and the basic elements of the internal regulations and to work quickly and continuously to achieve results and progress without external interference or time frames imposed from the outside.


Pedersen wants to present practical proposals to expedite constitutional discussions within three options: discussing more than one topic per day, tackling one chapter of the constitution in each round, submitting drafts and discussing one chapter of the constitution in each session, until all chapters are completed.


The atmosphere and diplomatic contacts remained positive, suggesting that the meetings will take place. Syrian officials said their delegation would participate in the meetings if “logistical problems for Russian friends” were resolved.


Indeed, the Swiss authorities facilitated the visa procedures for the Russian delegation. But suddenly, the decision to boycott was relayed to Geneva from Damascus hours after a “breakthrough” represented in the Western acceptance of Russian conditions on extending the Security Council resolution to deliver humanitarian aid across the border for only six months.


What are the problems of the Russian veto?

Boycotting the Constitutional Committee meetings has many complexities. First, it exposes the realities of the meetings, collides with the public discourse of Moscow and embarrasses Damascus, which does not seem to mind abandoning the international umbrella to discuss its constitution and what it sees as a sovereign matter issue.


Most importantly, the boycott contradicts the political process, as UN Security Council Resolution 2254 stipulated that reforming the Syrian constitution was a Syrian-led process and not a Russian matter. This was confirmed in writing by the work standards document completed by the Syrian parties in 2019.


Moreover, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which was held in Sochi in early 2018, stipulated that reform must be discussed in Geneva. This was coupled with several statements from the “guarantors” of the Astana process, stressing that the work of the Constitutional Committee should be carried out “without external interference.”


What are the options?

An envoy of a Western country, who participated in the Geneva meetings, said after receiving a letter from Pedersen’s office about the cancellation: “When you attack another country, and targeting civilians becomes a cornerstone of military strategy, whether it is in Ukraine or Syria, political hypocrisy is a key feature embedded in your foreign policy.”


The decision meanwhile, came as a surprise to the opposition, which found in the Geneva Process a platform that gives it political significance and parity with Damascus.


A leader in the opposition said the government delegation has tied its participation to “fulfilling Russian demands.”


He continued: “We are facing a very deep crisis that will last for more than a few months, while the Constitutional Committee will not hold any meetings.”


“This fabricated crisis was not created by any Syrian side, but by a foreign party, Russia,” he added. “This is blatant foreign interference in the work of what is supposed to be a committee maintained and led by Syrians. Russia is not a party to the Constitutional Committee to decide whether they should travel or not.”


There is no doubt that the decision that Damascus conveyed to Geneva on behalf of Moscow will be discussed by the Astana “guarantors” - Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ebrahim Raisi - in Tehran on Tuesday.


It is true that Tehran, along with Ankara, is looking for an achievement in the Syrian arena. But the fate of the possible Turkish military operation in northern Syria will likely be the most pressing issue at hand. The officials will also likely prioritize the areas of “hostile cooperation” between Ankara and Moscow in Ukraine. Iran also wants to propose issues that concern its role and US President Joe Biden's recent visit to the Middle East.


It is known that the Constitutional Committee is neither a committee, nor working on the constitution. It is nothing but a pretext that allows “players” to act like there was a political process to justify military choices and social engineering, as well as prevent another real process from taking shape. And there are those who want a constitutional process without an international umbrella.


Russia is using Syria and its “political process” as an arena for controlling its partners, punishing its opponents and “testing” its rivals and the Constitutional Committee is small evidence of this.

Asharq Al-Awsat
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