UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. special envoy for Syria announced Wednesday that the 45-member committee charged with drafting a new constitution for the conflict-torn country will meet for the first time in nine months on Aug. 24.
Geir Pedersen told the Security Council that convening the U.N.-facilitated, Syrian-led meeting in Geneva has been challenging, because of disagreement on an agenda until March and then because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He encouraged committee representatives from the government, opposition, and civil society to come to Geneva “ready to engage in earnest” and move the process forward “in a business-like manner, in a series of regular meetings in the months ahead.”
“This is important because millions of Syrians continue to face immense suffering and do not have the luxury of time to await the political breakthroughs,” Pedersen said.
There is widespread frustration at the lack of progress, he said, and civil society representatives often stress “that a single meeting of the constitutional committee will not bring immediate changes on the ground, but substantial and serious engagement by all parties would give them hope that a meaningful process is on the horizon that could have a longstanding and positive impact on the lives of the Syrian people.”
The start to drafting of a new constitution has been delayed for over 2½ years.
At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. This was a key step toward elections and a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 and has killed over 400,000 people.
There was an early agreement on 50-member lists from the Syrian government and the opposition. But it took nearly 20 months, until September 2019, to agree on the list the United Nations was authorized to put together representing experts, independents, tribal leaders and women, mainly because of objections from the Syrian government.
The 150-member committee agreed on the 45-member drafting committee with 15 members from each list in late October 2019.
The Security Council adopted a resolution in 2015 endorsing a road map to peace for Syria, including drafting a new constitution and U.N.-supervised elections.
“This is indeed a momentous task — to establish a foundational act, a social contract for Syrians — after a decade of conflict and amidst deep divisions and mistrust,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said the United States is encouraged and hopeful that the meeting “will yield a clear path forward for the political process,” stressing that “now is the time for urgency, compromise and action.”
U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and Special Envoy Joel Rayburn are traveling to Geneva to underline U.S. support and “ensure the success of the constitutional committee,” she said.
Craft expressed hope that the meeting can directly address constitutional reforms and that members are willing to remain in Geneva for weeks and agree to a future round of meetings throughout the fall so progress can be achieved and elections can take place “as soon as possible.”
“The key to achieving a credible, long-lasting political (solution) to the Syrian conflict is a permanent, nationwide cease-fire,” she said. “We call upon the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian enablers to commit to this political process by halting all further attacks.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia reminded council members that “this is a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process which must be safeguarded from any external interference.”
“We consider it important to resume the political dialogue,” he said, stressing that a new constitution will consolidate Syrians and strengthen the country’s sovereignty and independence.
Nebenzia said the main obstacles to “the normalization of the situation in Syria” remain: “the presence of terrorists, foreign occupation of parts of the territory, attempts to overthrow the government by means of sanctions” and playing various ethnic groups against each other.
Pedersen, the U.N. envoy, urged Turkey and Russia to avoid escalation in northwest Syria and noted “an altercation” between the Syrian government and United States in the northeast earlier this week. He said attacks by Islamic State extremists “continue to grow in frequency and impact.”
Pedersen said the presence of five foreign armies in Syria creates a serious risk of threats to international peace and security.
He reiterated his call for “constructive diplomacy among key international players” to promote the release of detainees, abductees and clarify the fate of the missing, to promote a safe environment for the return of millions of refugees, and to reach a final political settlement.
“But for now, for next week, let us focus on supporting the members of the constitutional committee to deepen their work, and to build some confidence in a political route out of the Syrian conflict,” he said.