Syria talks to resume in two weeks, US slams regime's Idlib attacks

Second round of negotiations on a new constitution will start November 25

epa07981535 Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, speaks to the media after the first round on the meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations (UNOG) in Geneva, Switzerland, 08 November 2019.  EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI

A first round of talks between representatives of Syria's government, opposition and civil society ended on Friday with UN special envoy Geir Pedersen saying progress had been made on forming a new constitution.

The inaugural meeting of the UN-backed Syrian Constitutional Committee was the first time that officials loyal to President Bashar Al Assad's regime and the opposition have held face to face talks since peaceful protests in 2011 developed into civil war.

Split equally between the government, opposition and members of civil society, 150 appointees form the committee, with 15 from each side being responsible for drafting the new constitution.

Mr Pedersen, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's special representative for Syria, said the discussions had been intense but professional. And despite the committee being “a very polarised group” the daily meetings in Geneva had built some initial trust and confidence.

“They have started to listen to each other very seriously,” Mr Pedersen said.

“These are sometimes very painful discussions, and it takes courage to sit and listen to the other side presenting its views of these issues but I think we have begun to address both difficult and painful issues.”

The committee's second round of talks will begin, again in Geneva, on November 25.

UN officials as well as the United States and European leaders have stressed that a new Syrian constitution is only one step to ending the war. More than half a million people have been killed and millions displaced.

Mr Pedersen wants the Al Assad regime to release in large numbers some of the thousands of civilians imprisoned during the war. The elderly, women and children should be the first to be freed, he has said.

With fighting ongoing, Najat Rochdi, senior humanitarian adviser to Mr Pedersen, said late on Thursday after her visit to Syria that tens of thousands of civilians had been affected by Turkey's recent offensive in the north-east.

“Since October 9 the UN has received reports of dozens of civilian deaths as well as a growing number of casualties, often caused by improvised explosive devices,” Ms Rochdi said.

The comments were widely received as an attempt to re-focus attention on civilians after Turkey's military action – which followed the withdrawal of most American troops from the area, on the orders of President Donald Trump.

Critics of the constitutional committee believe Mr Al Assad's consent is merely a tactic, backed by his Russian allies, to head off political pressure from the US and Europe while pursuing a military campaign.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior US State Department official said Russia's role remained vital but argued that President Vladimir Putin was not inexorably tied to the regime in Damascus.

“The Russians don't quite think that Assad has won, but they feel comfortable that Assad will survive. And what they're trying to do is figure out what happens next,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“The fact that they have played a fairly large role in ensuring that this constitutional committee would be set up indicates that they know they cannot simply embrace Assad's 'never say yes, never budge, simply they shall not pass' policies.”

Signalling the intensity of the fighting in another area of the country – Idlib, in Syria's north-west – the State Department on Friday highlighted how the regime's air strikes, backed by Russia, had killed civilians.

“These attacks over the last 48 hours have hit a school, a maternity hospital, and homes, killing 12 and injuring nearly 40,” said spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

“The latest reported incidents reflect a well-documented pattern of attacks against civilians and infrastructure by Russian and Syrian forces.”