Middle East

Syria transitional document gains ground

Ahmad Jarba, leader of Syria's opposition National Coalition, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend a news conference at the French foreign ministry during a "Friends of Syria" meeting ahead of Geneva II peace talks, in Paris, January 12, 2014. (REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

BEIRUT: A document is being circulated among opposition figures and international parties concerned with the Syrian conflict ahead of next week’s Geneva II talks, outlining a model to steer the country out of its bloody crisis.

The proposal, according to those who drafted it, aims to serve as a working document to kick-start talks between the Syrian regime and its opponents scheduled to be held in Switzerland next week.

The Proposal for a Temporary Constitutional Declaration “examines the basis for transitional rule, the system of government and associated institutions during the transitional period.”

While not the only model circulating, it is one of the first documents to emerge that could form part of the agenda of Geneva II to be held in Montreux on Jan. 22.

While Moscow and Washington are pressuring a disparate collection of opposition figures and Damascus to attend the conference, stark rifts over the agenda and terms for talks have dimmed hopes that they can find a resolution to the 3-year-old conflict.

The Syrian regime is willing to attend talks without preconditions and says President Bashar Assad’s departure is not up for discussion, insisting he will be a candidate for president later this year. The opposition National Coalition – plagued by infighting and defections, in part over attendance at Geneva II and with little sway over Islamist rebel groups fighting on the ground – says talks can only be aimed at Assad and his regime’s removal from power.

Last week a U.S.-led group of countries meeting in Paris sought to assure the opposition there would be no place for Assad in a transitional government they hope to see emerge from upcoming peace talks.

The transition document was drafted by three opposition figures from widely different backgrounds: American-Syrian history professor Amr al-Azm, Muslim Brotherhood and Coalition member Mohammad Sarmini, and opposition activist Motasem al-Soufi.

Central to the proposal is a clause stipulating that during the transition period, expected to be two to three years, all presidential powers will be suspended. And, until a new constitution has been approved through a popular referendum, presidential polls cannot go ahead.

It suggests Islamic jurisprudence be the principal source of legislation, like the current Constitution, and provides guarantees for the freedom to practice all other Semitic religions.

The transitional period aims to establish “a democratic, civil” and pluralistic political system, with guaranteed protection of women and minority rights. Another of the basic principles says the transitional state recognizes the existence of Kurdish and other ethnicities.

Azm described the document as a “starting point” and a “mechanism” for talks, rather than an end in itself, saying the details of the content were “flexible.”

“There are bound to be negotiations. People from the regime, maybe the Russians, the opposition and the main negotiating powers may want certain guarantees about the names or other details,” Azm said, adding that if agreed, the transition could end up a mix of opposition and regime figures.

“If they accept the overall structure then it’s a huge step. Then you start to talk about peoples roles.”

The document is believed to have received tentative endorsement from U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and the U.S. State Department, as well as several key internal and external opposition blocs and independents. It has also been sent to Russian figures involved in the Geneva preparations.

“One of the reasons it has been circulated and accepted so far and wide is because it has not come out by one specific group,” Azm said. “We want people to move away from this idea that we need a unifying identity or personality. If you have enough people that accept it, then you have a critical mass, then you have something you can move on.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2014, on page 8.




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