GENEVA — Syrian peace talks were held for the first time under the auspices of a new Syrian constitutional committee and were “impressive” enough to last another week, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, said on Friday.
The Syrian-led committee, a United Nations-authorized assembly of 150 government, opposition and civil society members, convened its first meetings at the U.N. offices in Geneva this past week and will keep going into next week, Pedersen said. About 30 percent of the committee’s attendees are women.
Pedersen urged all sides to use this “historic” opportunity — the first face-to-face talks between Syria’s government and opposition mediated by the United Nations — to try to end the nation’s horrific war.
“We, of course, all know that after eight and a half years of conflict, there are deep differences, a lot of suspicion, and a lack of trust,” Pedersen said in a statement. “But the fact that 150 Syrians have been sitting together, respecting each other, talking to each other, discussing — according to the agenda that we agreed upon — the future of Syria, I think was quite impressive.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011 sparked a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half the nation’s 22 million pre-war population. Islamic State militants seized upon the war to take over large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq until earlier this year.
By March, the self-declared ISIS “caliphate” had lost its last remaining claim to any territory. Last month, Turkey launched an offensive to eradicate the Kurdish militia after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled U.S. forces out of northeastern Syria, where Kurds developed a system of self-rule.
The committee grew out of a U.N. Security Council resolution in December 2015 calling for a Syrian-led, U.N.-mediated political process that “establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution.”
After a Russia-hosted peace conference adopted a framework agreement in January 2018, the committee finally was created in September with the aim of rewriting Syria’s constitution.
Participants in the session of the #Syrian Constitutional Committee in #Geneva have not yet reached any decisions on reforming the constitution but determined candidates for the small group tasked with considering concrete proposal pic.twitter.com/hOKpHGp8f7
— Syrian Constitution (@syrianconst) November 1, 2019
The committee agreed to form a 45-member constitutional drafting body — 15 each from government, opposition and civil society — that will begin its work next week. It is expected to seek consensus for its actions, though constitutional proposals will require at least a three-quarters majority for adoption.
Hadi Al-Bahra, head of the opposition delegation, said the most important confidence-building measures are “to establish a permanent ceasefire, release detainees and find the missing.” Ahmad Kuzbari, head of the government delegation, said his members welcome “those who have opinions close to our group,” but they will not meet with “those who are too far removed from our national principles.”
U.N. officials hope the committee work leads to implementation of a 2012 U.N.-brokered roadmap hammered out in previous Geneva talks. The roadmap calls for U.N.-supervised elections in Syria leading to a new, transitional government that gains international acceptance and legitimacy.
The roadmap was approved by the Arab League, European Union and Turkey and, in 2015, by the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Pedersen said the Syrian-led process facilitated by the U.N. has the full support of Russia, Turkey and Iran, along with the backing of the United States, European Union and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran, part of a so-called Astana group to help end the war, were in Geneva to lend moral support this past week, but did not participate in the committee discussions.
“I am optimistic that in the not-too-distant future, we will see tangible progress in the discussions,” Pedersen said at the outset. The committee’s work is also based on the U.N.-mediated “12 Living Intra-Syrian Essential Principles” that were agreed upon in 2017 to draft a new Syrian constitution.