Constitutional Talks offer Syrians Hope but More Needs to be Done

Parties in the eight-year-long Syrian civil war have been meeting face to face for the first time to discuss constitutional reforms which will help repair the highly polarised nation. A total of 150 delegates, among them members of the civil society, have been meeting in Geneva, Switzerland under the aegis of the United Nations in what is seen as the first step towards a political solution for the Syrian crisis.

Setting the theme for the conference was the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen who said: “Today could become the beginning of something meaningful for Syria and Syrians everywhere. Together we can make this come through.” He, however, insisted that it was upon the Syrian themselves to decide their destiny by ensuring the political process succeeds. “Do not expect me or my team to tell you what to write in your constitution. The future constitution belongs to Syrians, to the Syrian people and them alone.”

At the centre of the talks is the constitution passed by President Bashar Al Assad just at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012 in an attempt to meet the protesters demands for reforms. Under the constitution, Assad and his Baath party still retain great control over key institutions such as the judiciary, parliament, and the security forces. He is also responsible for nominating the prime minister. The opposition although agreeing that part of the constitution is good, they are demanding amendments that will devolve power away from Damascus.

The government delegation has already struck a compromise tone by promising that they are ready to consider the demands of the opposition by introducing major amendments or coming up with a new constitution altogether. But according to the UN which is playing the role of a mediator, any constitutional reforms adopted by the constitutional committee “ must be popularly approved and transposed into the national legal order by a means that will need to be approved.”

However, there’s more that needs to be done to create a conducive atmosphere for the success of the political process and the attainment of a sustainable peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. The country needs international support for reconstruction and a clear commitment from the leaders to uphold peace.

The ongoing civil war has left thousands dead, millions displaced and greatly devastated the country’s infrastructure. According to Human Rights Watch, the scale of destruction and devastation is causing a severe and almost insuperable problem in most parts of the country, and in the face of corruption, and continuing insecurity, the humanitarian and reconstructive needs of Syria are immense.

Data from the UN indicates that over 140,000 buildings were damaged, and around 50,000 destroyed during the war. But the figures could be even higher considering that the security situation cannot allow proper assessment of the destruction to be carried out.

Rebuilding infrastructure and houses, together with providing access to health care, education, basic needs and fundamental human rights, are critical in restoring peace and a good life to the people of Syria. But the reconstructive efforts could be greatly complicated by the lengthy duration of the civil war. According to Samir Aita , Syrian economist and the President of “Cercle des Economistes Arabes” Think Tank:  “The longer the conflict, the more economic and complex social mechanisms change the nature and magnitude of the efforts needed to retrieve a sustainable post-war outcome which can ensure steady progress towards decent livelihoods and an acceptable prospective for the affected population.”

He further opines that “reconstruction needs a functioning economy providing construction materials and qualified human resources operating within predictable supply and demand patterns”. But with the Syrian economy in shambles, much cannot be achieved without international support. The country’s revenues have dwindled immensely due to the loss of control of key oil fields to the opposition forces, US sanctions on the importation of crude oil from Iran, and an EU oil embargo.

In 2019, the country’s total budget was $9bn compared to $18bn in 2011 just before the war. Out of the $9bn budget, only $2.5bn was allocated by the government towards reconstruction. This is like a needle in a haystack considering that the UN has put the cost of the country’s reconstruction at approximately $250bn, while Assad’s government has put it at $400bn.

This leads us to the million-dollar question:

Who will meet the cost of the reconstruction of Syria?

Although Russia has played a great role in propping up the Assad government through military power, it has been hesitant to commit itself to the extensive reconstruction of Syria because of its economic challenges caused by the sanctions imposed by the EU and America after the annexation of Crimea. Instead, it has been calling upon America and her allies to meet the reconstruction costs.

On the other hand, America and the European countries have always insisted that they would only be committed to extensive reconstruction of Syria if Assad vacates office and a new government is installed through elections. However, some European countries such as Hungary, Poland and Italy have realised that Assad has won the war, and are secretly willing to engage with him. But despite the  differences over how to deal with Assad,  the United Nations has still managed to raise over $7bn in aid pledges for Syria from different countries

In conclusion, war leads societies to be divided into factions with grievances. For this reason according to Aita, one of the major issues in the post-conflict recovery is how to deal with these grievances. Therefore, apart from the need for international support for reconstruction, Syria will need a clear commitment from the opposing factions to uphold peace and to give reconciliation a chance. The issue of detainees and missing persons from both sides will have to be addressed, and the refugees returning home must be granted protection. This will help create an environment which is vital for the success of the political process, leading to a happy, peaceful and prosperous Syria that respects human dignity.