The World of International Organizations

U.N. talks open on Syria national governance

Syria's Aleppo seen from the Citadel (AN/Ed Brambley)

GENEVA — Three teams of Syrian representatives, dogged by mistrust from an almost decade-long civil war, began a fourth round of peace talks on Monday focused on how to create a new system of national governance.

The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, hosted negotiations among teams of government, opposition and civil society representatives, each with 15 members, within the United Nations’ European headquarters at the Palais des Nations. They planned to meet daily until the end of the week.

This round of private talks will revolve around building new “national foundations and principles,” Pedersen told reporters on Sunday, while a fifth round of talks planned for January will look at “constitutional principles, or basic principles of the constitution.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat with experience in several U.N. roles, said the talks could proceed using safety measures approved by Swiss health officials. In August, he ordered a three-day suspension in the third round of talks because four members of a Syrian constitutional committee had COVID-19 infections when they first arrived at the peace talks.

“There is no reason to not be frank about all the challenges we have had in moving this process forward,” Petersen said at a virtual news briefing. “We had obviously hoped that we would have been able to move the process more quickly forward. Part of it has been a disagreement, but it has also been part of course to the outbreak of the covid in February-March of this year.”

Opening doors

The talks do not include representatives of militant extremist factions that control parts of Syria, but Pedersen said finding common principles among the three teams at the talks was hard enough.

“After nearly 10 years of conflict there is a deep lack of trust between the parties,” he said. “We knew that we would have to overcome this deep mistrust. We knew that that would take time, it would be, you know, a difficult process. I hope that what we have achieved is actually the beginning of starting to build trust between the parties, and that this building of trust could then be a door opener to a broader political process.”

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. The war has led to one of the 21st century’s worst humanitarian catastrophes and the rise and fall and continued survival of the Islamic State group.

Assad’s government, backed by Russia and Iran, wants changes to the nation’s charter; the opposition, supported by Turkey, favors a new constitution. In 2019, Syrian peace talks were held for the first time in Geneva under the auspices of a new Syrian constitutional committee, a U.N.-authorized assembly of 150 government, opposition and civil society members rooted in a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution.

Pedersen has been leading the council-mandated effort. The resolution calls for a Syrian-led, U.N.-mediated political process that creates a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution.

He said there was no exact timeline for the rounds of talks, since previous efforts failed to adhere to pre-set deadlines for achieving results.

“We know that we have not lived up to the expectations of the Syrian people in making the progress that is necessary to end the suffering for the Syrian people,” Pedersen said. “So it is my hope that the relative calm that we are seeing in Syria now, despite all the daily violations, that it should be possible to focus more heavily on the political process and all the elements of Security Council Resolution 2254.”

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