Author: Kanan ROVSHANOGHLU
Finally, a constitutional committee has been set up in Syria to hold its first meeting of in Geneva in the coming weeks. This was announced by the UN Secretary General António Guterres at a briefing held at the headquarters of the organization.
According to Guterres, the Syrian government and the opposition have already agreed on the staff of the committee, which will soon start its work under the auspices of the UN. In other words, we can say that the process of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict has started. Guterres expressed gratitude on behalf of his organization to Iran, Russia and Turkey for their support in forming the committee.
The staff of the Constitutional Committee (150 members) was agreed upon during the trilateral summit held on September 16 in Ankara with the participation of the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey after a one and a half year of heated discussions and debates.
The establishment of the Constitutional Committee for a political solution to the Syrian conflict is formulated by UN Resolution No. 2254. The committee will include 50 members of the Syrian government, 50 members from the opposition and 50 representative from the civil society. In accordance with the action plan, 45 people (15 from each group) from the total number of committee members will be selected to draft a new Syrian Constitution followed by free and fair elections to form a new Syrian government.
This means that the political transfer of power in Syria has already begun. In the near future, the Constitutional Committee will discuss in Geneva the details of the new process for resolving the Syrian conflict and make a corresponding decision. It also means that elections scheduled for next year are likely to be delayed until the adoption of a new constitution.
Obviously, no one can expect the Constitutional Committee to draft a new Constitution in such a short time and complete the process of political transition of power. The process will be quite long and, most likely, will depend on the coordination of the actions of local authorities because it requires solving a number of very sensitive issues, including the development of a new Constitution, holding of elections, redistribution of power, etc.
Eventually, after the summit held in Ankara, the Iran, Russia, Turkey and to a lesser extent the United States will determine the future of Syria. But it is important to mention that the fate of Syria now depends on the troika, namely Iran, Russia and Turkey. The US plays a relatively passive role in this process, rather interested more in the Kurds populating the north of the country. In 2013, when the likelihood of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad decreased, Washington began supporting military operations against terrorist groups in northern Syria. In the following year, ISIS intensified and forced Washington to launch a large-scale anti-terrorist operation as part of a coalition (created in late August 2014 and includes 64 countries), which included Kurds armed by the US. Later it became clear that a lion's share of Washington’s “investment” in Syria was in Kurdish militias. It is no longer a secret that Pentagon’s support for Kurds has a long-term goal - to create a Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria in the same manner as they did in Iraq.
Unlike the United States, Iran, Russia and Turkey have more expressed presence in Syria. Each of these countries has significant military power to achieve specific goals in the country. Iran and Russia maintain a military presence in Syria thanks to the invitation of the Syrian government. In other words, the fate of Syria is forged by these three countries.
Despite the seemingly well demonstrated sincerity and warm atmosphere of mutual understanding between the participants of the summit recently held in Ankara, the reality looked different. Since Iran, Russia and Turkey have own interests in Syria, their opinions do not always match on individual issues. It is likely that attempts to collaborate on the Syrian issue more actively and coherently are due precisely to the fact that all three countries recognise that they need each other.
The priorities of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Syria have also been reflected in the joint declaration following the Ankara summit. The main points of the document underline the importance of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Syria in strict accordance with the UN principles. At the same time, all three countries reject any attempt to create new realities in the region under a mask of the fight against terrorism in Syria.
The leaders emphasize that security and stability in northeast Syria, particularly in the area with dominant Kurdish population, can be ensured thanks to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this country. They also condemn the US decision on the Golan Heights, which contradicts the international law and threatens peace in the region. Leaders do not accept a military solution to the Syrian conflict, rather insisting only on the possibility of using political means to resolve the situation led by the Syrians and under the auspices of the UN.
If the political transition of power is not taken into account, there are two main problems at the forefront of the conflict. Firstly, this is the fate of the province of Idlib, located in the north of the country and largely controlled by the opposition. The second serious problem is the fate of the Kurds, who control more than 25% of the territory in northeast Syria. These two issues, the fate of Idlib and the Kurds, were clearly reflected in the final document of the Ankara summit. The three countries confirmed the urgency of these problems by listing their priorities in the document.
First, it should be noted that at this stage there are no serious disagreements between Russia and Iran despite certain differences in views on Israel and the future of Syria. Moreover, the policies of both countries coincide on the issue of Idlib and the Kurds. At the summit, leaders tried to resolve disagreements between Turkey and other participating countries over Idlib.
In accordance with the Sochi treaty, which Erdogan and Putin hastily concluded on September 17, 2018, it was supposed to create before the end of that year an “unarmed strip” passing through the centre of Idlib, ensure the retreat of heavy weapons and monitor the ceasefire regime and, most importantly, to destroy the armed groups of Al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham recognised as terrorist organizations in the region. But the problem is that in Idlib there are armed groups of the Syrian opposition, which are not the members of the above organisations. In addition, along with the Turkestan Islamic Party made up of about 15-18 thousand Uyghurs (according to various estimates, there are about 40 thousand Uyghurs in Idlib), there is a third large armed group, the National Salvation Front, supported by Turkey. However, just a few months after Turkey signed the Sochi treaty, jihadists attacked Idlib and captured most of the province. Therefore, Turkey has not been able and still cannot fulfil its obligations under the Sochi treaty. Before the war, Idlib had a population of 1.5 million people. Now the population of the province is about 3-4 million people. It is assumed that with the outbreak of hostilities in Idlib, groups close to Turkey will fall under attack and hundreds of thousands of refugees, as well as terrorists, will flock there. Therefore, the suspension of hostilities in Idlib is a major success for Ankara. But everyone understands that the current situation will not last long. Russia, for example, is not interested in such a scenario in particular.
Moscow wants Ankara to move in easterly direction, not toward Idlib, meaning that it is necessary to solve the more serious threat posed by Kurdish armed groups (YPG and the so-called coalition of Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF), which control more 25% of the Syrian territory, as well as the US, France and other European countries supporting the Kurds. Over the past five years, the Kurds led by the YPG, which is the main force of the SDS, have collaborated with the US and a coalition of forces fighting against ISIS in the north of Syria. In return, they received ammunition from the US and Washington's support for the development of a political management system in the region and even its own “constitution”. It is clear that the Kurds seek autonomy in Northern Syria, as they did in Iraq. But only Turkey can prevent them from doing this.
Turkey considers Kurdish autonomy or any form of Kurdish self-government in northern Syria as a threat to its sovereignty and security. For this reason, Ankara at the initial stage is trying to create a “security zone” on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Ankara, Moscow, Tehran and, most importantly, Damascus follow the same line on this issue. Therefore, the Russian leadership was able to force the Syrian army, which advanced south of Idlib and established control over a vast territory, to declare a ceasefire. Ankara considers Kurdish groups to be a serious threat to itself. It is also trying to take control of a large territory forcing the Kurds to retreat from their borders and to create a buffer zone.
However, Moscow and Tehran understand that by throwing the Kurds 35-40 km off its borders and thus creating a wide “security zone”, Ankara will dissipate the enthusiasm of the Kurds, and in the worst-case, the relations between Washington and Ankara will deteriorate. Although official Washington (and the Pentagon) does not object to the creation of a “security zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border, it is trying to keep the width of the strip as small as possible and definitely not at 35-40 km. Worst of all, because of the US military, the Syrian army, unlike in Idlib, cannot conduct operations against the Kurds.
In his address at the last session of the UN General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan linked his plans for the region with the issue of refugees. He said that the US and Turkey continued discussions about a perspective 'security zone'. According to Erdogan, Turkey intends to initially create a “peace corridor” with the subsequent deployment of two million Syrian refugees in this zone. Erdogan believes that in such a large strip with an area of several thousand square kilometres (up to 400 long and 35-40 km wide), it is possible to accommodate at least 1.5-2 million refugees. He added that with the expansion of the region’s borders to Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, another three million refugees returning from Europe could be settled there.
If this plan works, Turkey will be able to establish control over a territory of 800 km from Hatay to the Iraqi border with a total length of the Turkish-Syrian border of more than 900 km. This will provide significant support to the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which is going to start work in Geneva in the coming weeks. In other words, Turkey will become the main military and political force, which after many years will be able to redetermine the future of Syria. But this requires that Turkey overcome yet another big obstacle, the United States.
Washington will try to resist for some time, as it understands how much the demands of Ankara contradict the political perspective of the Kurds. But the US will not want to sever all ties with such a large Middle Eastern country as Turkey. All the efforts of the Americans are focused on finding a common solution that satisfies both the Kurds and Ankara. In this sense, the fate of the political transition of power in Syria largely depends on Ankara and its actions.