Syrian FM blurs lines on constitutional committee

Walid Muallem's comments were Damascus's first reaction to UN announcement

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 28: Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem arrives to speaks at the 74th United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on September 28, 2019 in New York City. The United Nations General Assembly, or UNGA, is expected to attract 84 heads of state and 44 heads of government in New York City for a week of speeches, talks and high level diplomacy concerning global issues. New York City is under tight security for the annual event with dozens of road closures and thousands of security officers patrolling city streets and waterways.   Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP

Syria's government on Saturday poured doubt over the time frame for new constitutional arrangements to be thrashed out with the opposition.

In the country's most significant comments about a United Nations-brokered constitutional committee announced on Monday, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said no deadlines should be imposed.

His comments, in Syria's address to the annual UN General Assembly, came after a document was released showing that the new committee is mandated to amend the country's constitution or write an entirely new one.

Once the process of drafting the constitution is completed, “free and fair elections” will be held in Syria under the supervision of the UN.

But Mr Muallem said that while the government of President Bashar Al Assad welcomed the committee, “no deadlines or timetables must be imposed” on it.

“No preconditions must be imposed on the committee, nor should its recommendations be prejudged,” Mr Muallem said.

Those remarks were likely a rejoinder aimed at dampening expectations that Mr Al Assad will step down. When the idea of a new constitution was first raised more than two years ago, Syria's opposition had insisted that the president give up power. They later dropped that demand.

The UN hopes the committee will help end a conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions since the repression of anti-government protests developed into all-out civil war.

The committee was negotiated by the UN's special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, a veteran Norwegian diplomat.

Mr Pedersen has stressed that the process will be determined by Syrians, not the UN or global powers.

A first meeting of the committee, which took almost two years to negotiate, has been scheduled for October 30 in Geneva, the UN said on Saturday.

It will have 150 members, split evenly between the Syrian government, opposition and members drawn from civil society.