Although launched by the UN, the idea of the Syrian Constitutional Committee was originally put forward by Russia which, along with Turkey and Iran, is part of the Astana trio, an alternative peace process to that of the international organisation. Yet the second round of constitutional talks ended on Friday because delegates backed by the Syrian government couldn't reach an agreement with the opposition on the agenda.
"We have been trying to reach consensus but, as I said, we are not there yet," UN Special Envoy Geir Pederson told reporters in Geneva, where the committee gathered for a week of negotiations. The 150-member committee is mandated by the UN with amending the constitution, regarded as vital for a political solution to the eight-year conflict. Within this committee there is a sub-committee of 45 members split equally between the Syrian government, opposition groups and civil society; it is tasked with preparing a draft of the new constitution.
The opposition blames the representatives of the government for the lack of progress, accusing them of stalling and not being willing to discuss issues related to the constitution by bringing up other topics such as fighting terrorism, lifting sanctions and the Turkish offensive. Sources close to the government, meanwhile, stress the importance of an agenda based on "national standards" before any discussion of constitutional reform, suggesting that the opposition is receiving foreign instruction not in the interests of the people of Syria.
One notable group was not included in the committee at UN Headquarters in Geneva: the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). "We are not participating in everything you mentioned," confirmed the President of the SDC Executive Committee, Ilham Ahmed, when asked about the Council's involvement in the Geneva talks or Astana processes.
"We have been deliberately excluded," she said, apparently to appease Ankara, which lists the Kurdish PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG (which forms the core of the SDC's military wing, the SDF or "Syrian Democratic Forces") as a terrorist organisation. Although no one has told the SDC explicitly that it is to be excluded — "Everybody tells us 'we want you to be at the negotiating table'," she pointed out to me through a translator —the "Turkish veto" does not allow that to happen. There is virtually no Syrian-Kurdish representation on the Constitutional Committee, despite accounting for some 20 per cent of the population.
Ahmed explained that the SDC was established in 2015, following an agreement between various political parties, blocs and individuals from a plethora of ethnic backgrounds with the ultimate aim of founding a "decentralised and democratic Syria".
Indeed, the SDC was set up not long after its armed wing, the SDF, led as it were by the Kurdish forces in north-east Syria. In fact, the US suggested that the PKK/YPG should rebrand itself as the "Syrian Democratic Forces" so as to provide a legitimate and lawful means of supplying it with arms; this was admitted in 2017 by General Raymond Thomas, commander of the US Special Operations Command.
Contrary to the assumption that the SDC envisages an independent Syrian Kurdistan or semi-autonomy state like Iraqi Kurdistan, "The political system we want to achieve is neither sectarian nor ethnic," maintained Ahmed. "No single language will dominate the administration… [and] there will be no primary culture… All cultures are primary for the people of the region." The SDC, she argued, seeks a decentralisation based on geography rather than ethnicities and sects. Reports that the Council and its affiliates want to carve out a Kurdistan are not true, she insisted. "It is propaganda against our project, which is to build a democratic Syria."
Nevertheless, if the Kurdish forces in Syria do not seek a separate state based on the territories where the Kurds are most concentrated, why is it that the SDF controls such large swathes of the country, almost the entire state beyond the east of the River Euphrates (at least prior to the Syrian armed forces crossing over following the US withdrawal and subsequent Turkish offensive)? "It was the areas abandoned by the regime for Daesh and other jihadist groups to occupy." The SDF was on the front line against such aggressors, and her organisation wants a comprehensive political solution for the entire country, with each area having its own administration, in relation to the centre in Damascus.
What about the SDC's rekindled relationship with the Syrian government and the Russians? This is important given US President Donald Trump's decision in October to basically abandon the Kurds by withdrawing American forces from the area, providing a green light for Turkey to carry out Operation Peace Spring to push back armed Kurdish groups from a "safe zone" for refugees near the border. The SDF had to seek protection from Damascus, which in turn welcomed the opportunity to reclaim Syrian sovereign territory.
"Since the beginning [of the conflict] we have been trying to resolve the Syrian crisis democratically and via dialogue with the central government in Damascus," continued Ahmed. The lack of openness from Damascus in trying to find a peaceful solution led to the difficulties being exacerbated, leading to the militarisation of the opposition and the emergence of Daesh. She maintains that the SDF was established for defensive purposes only.
"In the wake of the Turkish offensive, we asked the Russians and the regime to deploy troops to the border area between us and Turkey," she said. It is doubtful that the Syrian government would risk sending its armed forces to protect the Kurds without any concessions or incentives, though. "The agreement was truly military based," Ahmed insisted. However, the next step will be more negotiations; she agreed with me that the Syrian government would naturally do what it can to reclaim its territory.
When pressed on the issue of future relations with neighbours and, in particular, with Israel, Ahmed claimed that the democratic country they aim to achieve will discuss the idea of having normal, peaceful relations with neighbouring states. "We support the peaceful solution of all the outstanding issues between the Arab Palestinians and the Israelis."
According to Ahmed, the SDC is committed to gender equality and equality among all ethnicities in Syria. However, it has been argued by many, including Syrian minority groups, that the Assad government is the best option for guaranteeing their security against persecution by Daesh and so-called moderate opposition groups infiltrated by jihadists. "Obviously in relation to the regime and these radical Islamist groups, people would say that the regime is the best," she conceded. Once the people understand the SDC's "democratic project", though, they will realise that it is, in fact, the best alternative for providing rights to all minorities.
In pragmatic terms of a roadmap towards peace and stability, the SDC needs to be a part of the discussions with the government and opposition, despite its connections with the YPG, purely because, as Foreign Policy noted, the Kurds "are the only indigenous group that Assad will take seriously because their fighters still control a large swath of territory in north-eastern Syria" and that in July 2018, Ilham Ahmed travelled to Damascus for negotiations with the Syrian government. There, she met with Ali Mamlouk, one of Bashar Al-Assad's most trusted advisors and "a far more senior Syrian government representative than any of the Assad-backed delegates who have travelled to Geneva." After all, in a recent interview, President Assad stated that his government is not even directly part of the negotiations in Geneva; there are, instead, delegates "who have the support of the government."
Finally, when asked about a future Syria and how the SDC intends to make progress given the participation of so many powerful regional actors in the country, Ahmed noted that, obviously, it is a very complicated situation. "However, we believe that by uniting all Syrians, we will be able to resolve this issue." She added that, "With the help of the international community we will be able to achieve democratic change in the country." In particular, Ahmed stressed, the West needs to review its policies on Syria as previous calculations were completely wrong. "They should not be in the interests of the Syrian regime nor the armed groups. We really do hope that there will be future support for the democratic changes in Syria."