Efforts to revive a peace process in Syria’s 11-year conflict are in doubt because Damascus has questioned the neutrality of the proposed host of the talks, Switzerland, a UN official said on Monday.
There had been speculation the Syrian government was unhappy with Switzerland observing international sanctions against its close ally Russia, believing that the Swiss could no longer be considered an impartial mediator.
The negotiations — the first since a stalled Russian-sponsored peace effort in 2018 — were scheduled for July 25 in Geneva.
Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011 after a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters led to armed rebellion, has largely ended. President Bashar Al Assad’s forces have regained most of the country from rebel groups, ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked militias.
Turkish-backed rebel forces and Al Qaeda-linked group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham still control areas of the north of the country, and there are concerns that the situation there could escalate. A US-backed Kurdish force controls much of the north-east of the country.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq did not directly explain the reason for Damascus rejecting talks in Geneva.
But on Monday he said: “We do reaffirm the neutrality of Switzerland as a venue for much of the work that the United Nations does.”
Geneva is the UN's major European headquarters.
UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said a ninth round of talks on revising the constitution of the conflict-torn country could not be held, and alluded to the neutrality issue.
He stressed the importance of all parties “protecting and firewalling the Syrian political process from their differences elsewhere in the world”.
Mr Haq said that “discussions on Syria need to be kept as much as possible separate and apart from discussions on other topics”.
A 2012 UN road map to peace in Syria approved by representatives of the organisation, the Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members — including Russia — calls for the drafting of a new constitution.
This would lead to UN-supervised elections with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.
A Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed the road map.
At a Russia-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution.
A smaller, 45-member body would do the actual drafting, including 15 members each from the government, opposition and civil society.
It took until September 2019 for the committee to be formed, and after eight rounds of talks little progress has been achieved.
Russia's military support for Syria changed the trajectory of the Syrian conflict.
The EU imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and added more after President Vladimir Putin's February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Pedersen encouraged the Syrian parties “to engage in constructive diplomacy” and said he would continue to engage with them “and provide more information in due course”.
Mr Haq said Mr Pedersen did not want “any sorts of events that are just for show” when it became clear that the July 25 to July 29 meeting could not take place in Geneva.
“He’ll keep working to see what actual substantive results he can make for the Syrian people, who have been waiting for far too long for progress on this,” Mr Haq said.
“At this stage, I don’t have any other venue … and we will see what happens next.”