On September 23 the UN announced the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which is scheduled to convene its first session on October 30. The Constitutional Committee will be responsible for approving a new Syrian constitution, a critical step toward a theoretical political transition in Syria and a settlement of the protracted Syria crisis more generally. For that reason, the formation of the Constitutional Committee has been one of the most important—and contentious—aspects of the Syrian peace process. The Constitutional Committee itself is comprised of 150 members, divided equally among three blocs: the Government of Syria, the opposition, and civil society. To that end, it is important to examine the profiles of the individual committee members, who in effect represent the various factions and interest groups within with committee.
Each of the three 50-member blocs within the Constitutional Committee can effectively be divided among various factions that represent core constituencies and external supporters. For example, the Government of Syria bloc is unified in that its members are all openly supportive of the Al-Assad regime; nonetheless, individuals on the Government list can be divided between two sub-groups, or informal factions. The first consists of ‘technocrats’ with long histories of working within the Syrian state; this faction will constitute the backbone of the Syrian Government’s legal, administrative, and political interests in negotiations. The second faction includes a diverse list of members apparently chosen on the basis of personal and professional connections; as such, they represent the business and sociopolitical interests of the Government of Syria. In comparison to the Government bloc, the opposition members list is highly fractured. Individuals on this list represent a multitude of Syrian political opposition bodies and frameworks that have been created throughout the conflict; the largest of these is the Syrian National Coalition, although this body itself is divided among numerous interest groups. The civil society bloc was the most contentious issue in the formation of the Constitutional Committee, as this list is intended to be impartial. The membership of the civil society list is highly atomized, and members have a high degree of independence. Collectively, the individuals on this list range from technocrats to prominent activists and NGO professionals; essentially, they will represent their own areas of technical expertise, activist projects, or the interests of narrow constituencies. The list can be divided geographically, between members who are based outside Syria, and those who remain inside the country. This division will impact both the perspectives of the members vis-a-vis the process, and the members’ personal security. Indeed, as of October 11, four members of the civil society list have announced their resignation from the committee. Three of these members cited security concerns.
As a whole, the Constitutional Committee is highly diverse, and it is generally representative of Syria’s basic geographies, ethnic demographics, and political tendencies. However, as important as the committee’s composition is what it lacks: namely, any individuals representing the Self-Administration in northeast Syria, which controls nearly one-third of the country. Additionally, the various blocs are, to a large degree, diametrically opposed, and the procedures are structured in such a way that broad consensus is needed to approve any amendments or ratify a new constitution. For that reason, the constitutional reform process is likely to be gridlocked. Furthermore, resignation of members means that, as of this writing, the committee is not fully constituted; it is possible additional members may resign, further delaying the already long-running Syria peace process.
Considering a preliminary assessment of the newly finalized Constitutional Committee list, five key conclusions are apparent:
In the letter issued by the UN Security Council on September 27 specifying the Terms of References and Core Rules of Procedure for the Constitutional Committee, the UN specifies that the role of the Constitutional Committee is to, “within the context of the UN-facilitated Geneva process, prepare and draft for popular approval a constitutional reform, as a contribution to the political settlement in Syria, and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254”. It also stipulates that the committee “may review the 2012 Constitution, including in the context of other Syrian constitutional experiences and amend the current constitution, or draft a new constitution.” Critically, the Terms and References specify no timeframe or deadline for the constitution to be approved.
UNSCR 2254, issued in 2015, is the foundational resolution that, among other items, calls for transitional government, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections. However, the legal framework that would govern this theoretical transitional government is unclear, and is ultimately one of the main points of contention. UNSCR 2254 called for “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”, before beginning a constitutional drafting process. It can therefore be argued that the formation of a Constitutional Committee is a deviation from 2254, in that a constitution is being drafted in absence of a transitional government. For that reason, the role of the constitution in the transitional period is interpreted differently between the opposition and the Government of Syria. Essentially, much of the opposition contends that UNSCR 2254 stipulates that Bashar Al-Assad must relinquish all his presidential powers during the transitional period; conversely, the Government of Syria contends that any transitional body may include representatives of the opposition, while still maintaining the general status quo within the Syrian state, and keeping in place President Al-Assad as the leader of the country.
The Constitutional Committee is comprised of a total of 150 members divided between three blocs, namely: the Government of Syria, the opposition, and civil society, with each bloc consisting of a list of 50 individuals. The committee is to be co-chaired by one representative from the Government of Syria list, and another from the opposition list; the role of the co-chairs is to coordinate and communicate the conclusions and progress of the committee with the UN, and ratify the decisions of the committee.
However, the actual center of gravity within the committee will be a 45-member “small body” composed equally of candidates selected by the Government of Syria, the Syrian opposition, and Syrian civil society. This small body will draft and adopt constitutional proposals which will then be voted on by the full 150-member committee. Proposals will require a three-quarter voting majority in both the entire body, and the small committee, to be adopted (113 votes in the large committee, and 34 in the small group). Essentially, the committee is designed in such a way that it requires broad approval to adopt constitutional proposals; to that end, the actual drafting of a new constitution will likely be a long process even if there were consensus among the members of the committee.
The individuals on the committee, by design, represent the different factions and interests in the Syria conflict and Syrian society. However, even within the three blocs, individual members also represent a multitude of interest groups, factions, and ultimate objectives. The following is an attempt to identify these different factions and interest groups by mapping the personal profiles and political orientations of some of the prominent individuals involved in the Constitutional Committee.
Syrian President Al-Assad meets with Russian Envoy Lavantiev in September 2019. Image Courtesy of Xinhua.
The Government list is uniquely unified, largely due to the fact that its members have all been chosen on the basis of their open support for the Government of Syria. Most members of the Government of Syria’s list are current or former members of the Syrian Parliament; many, but not all, are members of the Baath Party. There are two points of note on the Government of Syria list: first, it appears to be entirely devoid of any individuals that are clearly associated with the security services or military; second, the large majority of the individuals on the list were educated abroad.
It is almost certain that the members of the Government list will largely maintain a coherent and unified message throughout the process. It is also likely the Government’s chief priorities will be to preserve Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to limit any amendments that would potentially curtail the powers of the Syrian presidency, specifically in matters related to oversight of courts, security agencies, and the military. To that end, the Government of Syria bloc is expected to push against the drafting of an entirely new constitution, and will likely call instead for limited amendments to the 2012 constitution.
Despite the fact that the Government of Syria’s list is broadly unified, it is still divisible into two groups, both of which represent the interests of the Syrian Government and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, albeit in different ways. The first is a ‘technocratic’ list, and the second is a list based on personal profile and professional interests. In general, there is a fairly even split between these two groups; on a preliminary analysis, there are 23 individuals who could be considered technocratic, and 27 individuals that appear to have been chosen based on personal profile or professional connections.
The technocratic list is comprised of individuals who constitute or represent the backbone of the Syrian Government’s legal, administrative, and political interests. They are generally lawyers, state administrators, or ministerial employees. Essentially, technocrats here are defined as individuals that are educated or working in a field that is specifically relevant to the drafting of a constitution, such as governance or law. These figures include:
Al-Kezbari has been a member of the Parliament since 2012, and he is the head of the Parliamentary Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee. He has also been a member of the Lawyers Union in Damascus, the Syrian Jurists Association, and the International Lawyers Association in France and the UK. Al-Kezbari also participated in the constitutional amendment process in 2012, as he was a member of the National Committee for Drafting the Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic in 2011 and 2012. Al-Kezbari is also founder of and partner in Al-Sharq Bank and Al-Sham Bank.
Arnous is a longtime employee in the Government of Syria Foreign Ministry; he is the personal legal consultant to Bashar Jaafari, the head of the Foreign Ministry. Arnous has regularly accompanied Government of Syria delegations to both Sochi and Geneva, although he has consistently maintained a limited public profile. Notably, prior to his role as a legal consultant, Arnous was also Syrian Ambassador to Canada.
Skeif is the President of the Bar Association of Syria Arab Republic. He is also a member of the Baath Party, and is currently a member of the Syrian Parliament. Within the Parliament, Skeif is the head of the Freedom and Human Rights Committee. Skeif also was a member of the Government of Syria’s delegation to the Sochi conference.
Amin is a journalist and the head of the Syrian National Committee to Change Publication Law, a Governmental body which is tasked with creating the Government of Syria’s media control laws and policies. Previously, Amin worked at the Ministry of Communications. Amin is also part owner of Medditerranean for Commercial, an import-export company, and is known to be a personal friend to President Bashar Al-Assad.
Yaziji is an academic. She is the head of the Department of International Law in Damascus University, and is originally from Homs governorate. The Yaziji family is a prominent, wealthy Christian family. Her father, Fouad Yaziji, was a famous novelist, and a relative, Bishr Yaziji, was formerly the Minister of Tourism.
The second group within the Government bloc consists of individuals who were apparently chosen on the basis of their personal profiles and professional connections; as such, to some degree they represent the business and sociopolitical interests of the Syrian regime. These individuals are also largely members of the Parliament, although they are distributed between the Baath Party and ‘independent’ seats. Many are also public figures, or represent individual interest groups or constituencies within the Government of Syria. Examples include:
Qaterji is a notable (and internationally sanctioned) businessman, and the brother of Hossam Qaterji, an extremely prominent oil and cereals trader whose substantial family enterprise is extremely close to the Al-Assad regime. He is involved on some level in every one of the Qaterji companies. By education, Qaterji is an electrical engineer. Qaterji is originally from Ar-Raqqa, though he has spent the majority of the conflict in Aleppo, where he has represented his family’s business interests.
Aboud is an agricultural engineer by education, although she is best-known as a poet and novelist. Her son, Aozina Al-Ali, is also a well known public personality and is a popular Syrian pop singer. Aboud’s long deceased husband was a high ranking officer in the Syrian Arab Army Aboud is an Alawte, originally from Lattakia.
Qotorsh is a current member of the Parliament. However, he is more well known as a public personality; he was a former professional basketball player in Syria, and he hosts a television program about basketball. Qotorsh is originally from Damascus, and the Qotrosh family is a relatively prominent Kurdish Sunni family in Damascus.
Waqqaf is the director of Syria Drama TV, a popular Syrian television channel. Her mother is Maria Deeb, the first female new presenter in Syria, and her father was Muhammad Ali, a prominent Republican Guard commander. Waqqaf is an Alawite from Tartous, although she is now based in Damascus.
In comparison to the government bloc, the opposition bloc represented by the High Negotiations Commission is highly fractured. External actors including Russia and Saudi Arabia exercise considerable influence over its various factions; however, Turkey’s centrality to the political and military platforms of the Syrian National Coalition all but guarantees that Turkish influence will drive the priorities of the most powerful opposition actors. Although there is a high degree of ideological disagreement between the different platforms within the opposition bloc, in general its priorities include the curbing of the powers of the Syrian presidency and high-ranking state figures, and the creation of an inclusive transitional governance authority (with or without the participation of the Syrian regime). Members of the bloc are also likely to use the committee as a platform to advance the political objectives of the wider opposition, specifically the issue of detainees.
The opposition bloc was created at the Riyadh conference in 2015 and is represented by four basic ‘platforms’: the first is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf), which is the largest and most central platform, highly diverse, and strongly influenced by Turkey; the second is the Russia-influenced Moscow platform; the third consists of traditional internal opposition figures under the National Coordination Committee for the Syrian Revolution; and the fourth is the Cairo platform, consisting of nominally independent individual opposition figures.
Members of the opposition bloc meet on October 10, 2019 in Riyadh to discuss the composition of the small group in the Constitution Committee. Image courtesy of Rozana.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (i.e. the Syrian National Coalition) is considered the core opposition platform; it calls for Al-Assad’s removal from office and the regime’s exclusion from any transitional governance authority. As the primary representatives of the armed and political opposition inside Syria, the Syrian Interim Government and its National Army are the most powerful interests within the Syrian National Coalition; these are heavily influenced by Turkey, as are other crucial member groups of the Syrian National Coalition, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurdish National Council. However, as a ‘big tent’ platform, the Syrian National Coalition includes myriad sub-factions, including democrats, nominal independents, and military defectors, who are influenced to various degrees by other international actors including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Although these sub-factions are not all directly represented on the Constitutional Committee, they are expected to influence proceedings through other members.
El-Bahra is an industrial engineer from Damascus, with a history of work in Saudi Arabia. He joined the Syrian National Coalition in 2013, and he was named as a lead negotiator in the Geneva peace conference in 2014. For one term in 2014 he was named as the head of the Syrian National Coalition, and he was then appointed as a member of the Syrian National Coalition political committee. El-Bahra also takes part in numerous negotiations workshops and training in Geneva. El-Bahra is reportedly close to Saudi Arabia; rumors indicate that El-Bahra is the leading figure in the opposition Constitutional Committee list.
Istifu is an Assyrian from Quamishli, in Al-Hasakeh governorate; he is currently based in Istanbul. He is a co-founder of the Syrian National Coalition, and he was formerly the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition in 2016, and was a member of the Negotiations Committee in Geneva 2014-2017. He is currently the head of the Foreign Affairs office in the Syrian National Coalition. He has regularly participated in conferences in Brussels since before the conflict, specifically in the topics of human rights and minority rights. He holds a masters degree in history.
Jabawi is a former Syrian police general from Dar’a who defected in 2012. Subsequently, Jabawi became a member of the High Council for the Syrian Revolution, based in Jordan. He was closely linked to the Southern Front, and he was a founder of the Syrian Revolution Network, a (now defunct) opposition media office in Jordan. He is also a member of the Syrian National Coalition. Jabawi currently lives in Jordan.
Al-Abdeh is a geologist from Damascus. He is based in London, and has been an opposition figure since before the conflict; in 2006, he was one of the founders of the Movement for Justice and Development in Syria, an opposition movement based in London. At the start of the Syria conflict, he was a co-founder of the Syrian National Council, the progenitor organization of the Syrian National Coalition. Al-Abdeh was then elected as the president of the Syrian National Coalition from March 2016 to May 2017. Al-Abdeh is perceived to be symapthetic to and linked with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
The Moscow platfrom is essentially a ‘controlled’ opposition platform, whose political power mostly stems from its close ties to Moscow; the platform is sympathetic to the Government of Syria and the Government of Russia, and members openly use anti-terrorism rhetoric and call for Al-Assad to remain in office during the transition period, in contradiction with the Syrian National Coalition and the majority of the HNC. The Moscow Platform is closely linked to a Syrian political party known as the People’s Will (Al-Irada Al-Shaabiya) party, which was a leftist political party created by Qadri Jamil in 2012. Members of the People’s Will Party were actually a part of the Syrian Parliament between 2012 and 2014; however, in 2014, the party openly declared itself as opposition.
Sami Beitenjani is a businessman from Damascus; the Beitenjani family is a prominent and wealthy Christian business family. Beitinjani is educated as a lawyer, and is a leading figure within the People’s Will party. Beitenjani is known to be close to the Government of Russia, and is based in Moscow.
Dleqan is a member of the People’s Will Party. He is originally from As-Sweida, and is a Syrian Druze. Dleqan is based in Moscow, and was the head of negotiations for the Moscow platform. He studied business administration at the University of Damascus. Dleqan is personally close to Qadri Jamil, the head of the People’s Will Party, and reportedly has close linkages to the Government of Russia.
The National Coordination Committee for the Syrian Revolution represents the traditional leftist opposition which has opposed the Al-Assad regime from inside Syria since the 1970s, primarily through traditional opposition parties, to include the Nasserite Party and the Democratic Union Party (not to be confused with the PYD in northeast Syria). Although these actors have frequently been arrested and detained by the Government, they also constitute an important internal opposition that the Syrian Government has, to a degree, tolerated. The platform generally opposes foreign intervention in Syria, but calls for changes to the structure of the Syrian regime.
Mufarraj is a noted activist and former relief worker who joined the nascent uprising in 2011 and was arrested and detained multiple times before leaving Syria for Lebanon, and ultimately Germany, in 2013. Mufarraj was a delegate at Geneva 3, and served as deputy head of Geneva 4, despite a relatively modest public profile. A former Arabic instructor, Mufarraj is originally from Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash village in As-Sweida, but lived in Jaramana before leaving Syria for Germany.
Sayigh is a Damascus-based lawyer who was active in the opposition prior to the conflict, and in 2005, Sayigh was arrested for being a signatory to the Damascus Declaration. On October 8, Sayigh was briefly detained by Military Security at the Lebanon-Syria border, reportedly while en route to Saudi Arabia.
The Cairo platform consists of traditional liberal opposition figures and defectors; like the National Coordination Committee for the Syrian Revolution, it is nominally independent of foreign affiliations, however its membership differs in that they are generally independent of influence from traditional political parties. The Cairo platform opposes foreign intervention in Syria; notably, although the group calls for independent elections, it does not demand the removal of President Al-Assad from power.
Al-Khalde is the nominal leader of the Cairo platform. He is a medical doctor based in Washington D.C., but is originally from Damascus. Al-Khalde is a longstanding member of Al-Ghad, a traditional opposition party in Syria. However, Al-Khalde does not represent Al-Ghad in his capacity as a Constitutional Committee member, and he was not nominated by the Al-Ghad party.
Sleiman was a famous Syrian actor prior to the conflict, and is originally from Damascus. At the outset of the Syria conflict, Sleiman prominently aligned himself with the Syrian opposition, and was forced to flee Syria. He is based in Cairo, but travels extensively. Sleiman joined the Syrian National Coalition, in 2014, but quit the coalition after only two months; he now declares himself as an ‘independent’. He is not known to be closely aligned to any faction within the Syrian opposition.
UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen meets with Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem to discuss the Constitutional Committee in September 2019. Image courtesy of The National.
The composition of the civil society bloc was the most contentious element in the formation of the Constitutional Committee, as this list was intended to be the most ‘impartial’. Additionally, as noted above, on October 9 and 11, four members of the civil society list resigned citing security concerns, and they must now be replaced. To an even greater degree than the opposition list, the membership of the civil society list is highly atomized. Individual members operate with a high degree of independence, and they effectively represent their own interests, or those of their narrow constituencies. Therefore, it is difficult to group the civil society list into factions; however, the membership the civil society list primarily consists of skilled technocrats; activists and NGO professionals; and notables representing specific interest groups. Critically, perhaps the most important categorizable ‘division’ within the list is where its members are based: the civil society list is broadly divided between individuals who are present inside Syria, and individuals who are now part of the Syrian diaspora.
The members of the list are expected to have two main influences on the constitutional process. First, many members of the civil society list are generally highly experienced professionals and technical experts, and are therefore expected to bring high-level technical expertise to the process. Second, many of the activists and experts on the civil society list have a strong relations with various governments, donor agencies, UN bodies, and humanitarian and development organizations, whose recognition of the political process will be critical to securing buy-in for continued financial aid and future development and humanitarian programming.
The members on the civil society list are expected to call for a wide range of different proposals and amendments to the new constitution, to include: abolishing the Syrian antiterrorism laws and courts; advocating for HLP rights, detainees, and the disappeared; advocating for the concerns of specific interest groups or ethnic communities; dismantling the security state; abolishing presidential oversight over judicial, executive, and representative bodies; facilitating humanitarian access and civil society organization registrations; and creating new civil registry codes.
Those members of the civil society list that remain inside Syria have an important role in the constitutional process, in that they are closely connected to the on-the-ground realities of Syrian communities. Many also have open channels with the Government of Syria due to the fact that they remain within Government-controlled areas. They are therefore able to negotiate with the government on different terms than the opposition; however, this also means that they are subject to the risks inherent in living within the Syrian security state.
Al-Saraj is a legal expert and academic. He was the dean of the Damascus Law University between 1999 and 2003. He regularly teaches and consults at police academies throughout the Arab world, primarily in the Gulf. He currently works as an advisor and consultant on legal issues and international law, and he has worked with in the past with the UN and the Arab League. Al-Saraj is based in Damascus, and is from Deir-ez-Zor. Al-Saraj holds a PhD from the Sorbonne university.
Al-Darraji holds a PhD in international law, and is currently a lecturer at the University of Damascus. He is a well known and well respected researcher and political analyst. He was reportedly investigated by the Government of Syria in 2015, due to the fact that he has been critical of the Government of Syria; that said, Al-Darraji is generally perceived as an independent technocrat who is not affiliated with the political opposition.
Al-Zibaq is the head of the Damascus Craftsman’s Union. The Craftsman’s Union is the primary union for carpenters, glassworkers, and other specialist craftsmen; Al-Zibaq is himself an engineer and ironworker. Al-Zibaq is a member of the Baath Party from Damascus; however, Al-Zibaq has been largely apolitical throughout the conflict, although he is regularly interviewed on Syrian television to discuss the economic challenges facing Syria’s craftsmen and business community.
Fahed Huwaiji is a prominent human rights lawyer and the head of Syrian Equal Citizenship Center, an advocacy and legal assistance organization based in Damascus. He was a critic of the Government of Syria prior to the outbreak of the conflict. He has been arrested on numerous occasions both before and during the conflict due to his advocacy for human rights and the rights of detainees; however, due to his prominence, he has always been released.
Those members of the civil society list that are outside Syria are, in general, extremely competent technocrats and activists; many have been working on Syria from abroad since the start of the conflict, primarily with UN bodies, governments, and NGOs. Many are perceived as being linked in some way to the opposition, due to the fact that they are not in Syria; however, this is likely misleading, as most appear to be largely independent, and largely focused specifically on technical issues.
Former UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura meets with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu and Iranian foreign Minister Zarif on forming a constitutional committee in December 2018. Image courtesy of VOA.
Gharibeh is an economist from Homs city who is now based in the UK. Gharibeh regularly consults for INGOs, institutional donors, and the UN. He is also an academic at the London School of Economics, specifically researching economic issues in Syria. Gharibeh is perceived as being close to the political opposition, although he has no membership in any opposition body.
Hallaj is a well known technocrat and researcher, and is by training an architect; he was the head of Syria Trust from 2008 to 2012. Hallaj is a recognized expert in HLP issues, urban development, local governance, dialogue, and civil society; he regularly works with or consults for various UN bodies, institutional donors, and INGOs. He is also the co-coordinator of the Syria project at the Common Space Initiative. He has been awarded by UNESCO for his past work in Yemen, and is based in Beirut. Hallaj has no overt political affiliation.
Hallaq is a lawyer and a prominent feminist activist based in Beirut. Hallaq was formerly the head of the Syrian Citizenship League. Hallaq regularly consults for various INGOs, UN bodies, and institutional donors, and is a known expert on gender issues and human rights issues in Syria. Hallaq is a member of the Syrian Feminist League, and is the founder of Syrian Women for Democracy.
The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.
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