UN envoy: Constitutional committee first step to peace in Syria

Syria’s U.N. envoy called the agreement to establish a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria “a door opener” to U.N.-supervised elections.

Hassan Ammar/AP
People stand in front of damaged buildings, in the town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018. Syria's U.N. envoy said a recently formed constitutional committee could lead to U.N.-supervised free and fair elections.

The United Nations envoy for Syria said Tuesday the agreement to establish a committee to draft a new constitution for the conflict-wracked country is an important first step and "a door opener" to eventual U.N. supervised elections and a new future.

But Geir Pedersen said before that can happen "we must build up what is still almost totally lacking in Syria – and that is a sense of trust and confidence – between Syrians, and between Syria and the outside world."

He told a meeting on Syria organized by the European Union on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly that "there's no alternative but to work together to identify how to move together along a better path."

Mr. Pedersen spoke a day after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that the Syrian government and opposition had reached agreement on a long-awaited, U.N.-facilitated constitutional committee.

Formation of a constitutional committee was agreed to at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, but it has taken nearly 20 months for the sides to agree on the 150 members – 50 each selected by the government and opposition and 50 selected by the U.N. from experts, independents, tribal leaders, and women. The U.N. list faced lengthy objections, mainly from the Syrian government.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was the first time the U.N. facilitated an agreement directly between the parties.

Mr. Pedersen said he shook hands after agreement was reached with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Damascus and then called opposition leader Nasser Hariri who was in New York.

The U.N. envoy said Mr. Guterres looks forward to meeting them both in New York in the coming days and Mr. Pedersen will then begin discussions with them on the launch and initial work of the committee.

"I believe I can say with some confidence that it will be launched very soon," he said.

Mr. Pedersen stressed that action on detainees, abductees, and missing persons, "done in a meaningful way and at meaningful scale, is critical for the success of any credible political process."

"I will continue to push for progress on this crucial matter," he said.

Syria is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2021, and the U.N. hopes that the talks over the constitution can help create a climate and mechanism for holding U.N.-supervised free and fair elections.

But President Bashar Assad's government, which has all but won the war militarily with the help of Russia, is highly unlikely to offer any concessions on that front and Syrian officials have suggested the president will run again. The opposition says there can be no overall political resolution to the conflict as long as he remains in power.

Syrian troops launched an offensive in the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Idlib on April 30 that forced more than 400,000 people to flee, many of whom were already displaced. A cease-fire that went into effect at the end of August has been holding despite some violations.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said humanitarian agencies operating in Syria and carrying out U.N.-authorized cross-border deliveries reached an average of 6.3 million people every month in the first half of the year.

But he said the U.N.'s $3.3 billion appeal has received just $1.1 billion, or 33% so far. That compares to almost 45% funding for last year's $3.4 billion appeal at this time.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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