UN struggles to resurrect Syria peace talks

An international scramble for spheres of influence has sidelined the constitutional process propped by Moscow

Displaced Syrian boys look towards the camera from the back of their family truck as they visit their home in the village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometres southeast of Idlib city and seven kilometres west of Saraqib in northwestern Syria on March 29, 2020.  / AFP / AAREF WATAD
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Hours before addressing the Security Council on Monday, United Nations envoy Geir Pederson got approval from the Syrian opposition to resume dormant talks on a new constitution in three weeks time.

Russian prodding had resulted in Syrian regime consent, diplomatic and opposition sources involved in the buildup told The National.

The constitutional process, which was largely devised by Moscow, is all that remains of world efforts to end the Syrian civil war.

In an online briefing to the UN headquarters in New York, Mr Pedersen refrained from saying that the 150-member Constitutional Committee talks would resume since thier November halt.

“We will consult with the parties to see if useful preparations can begin for future sessions while we wait to see when a new meeting will be possible,” Mr Pederson said.

His language was vague even for those versed in what European diplomats describe as Mr Pedersen’s noncommittal approach since his appointment as in 2018 as the UN Special Envoy for Syria.

His hesitation more fundamentally reflects a process beholden to the main international players with spheres of influence Syria, the sources said.

They pointed to the US, saying that despite its reduced presence in the country, Washington retains sway to significantly influence the direction of any internationally-sanctioned end game in Syria.

UN-supervised peace talks that were supposed to produce a Transitional Governing Body have been in tatters for years.

The Russian intervention on the side of Bashar Al Assad in late 2015 allowed Moscow to steer international diplomacy on the Syria file, with Turkey a junior partner.

Saudi Arabia also resurfaced as a player. At a meeting in December in Riyadh, most of Turkey’s allies in the 34-member High Negotiations Committee, which the UN recognises as representing the Syrian opposition, were ousted. They were mostly replaced by figures allied with the Kingdom.

A senior opposition figure said they had been surprised Mr Pedersen did not announce any resumption of the Constitutional Committee’s work .

“He told us the talks would resume online because of coronavirus,” the opposition figure said. “From the way he addressed the Security Council, there will be no talks anytime soon. Pedersen, us, and the regime are basically bystanders.”

While the US supports the Constitutional Committee as the only pragmatic path to any political change in Damascus, it no longer wants the talks to be dominated by Russia and Turkey, said another opposition figure.

“The US are supporting the Saudis to get Riyadh back in,” said the source, who met on the weekend James Jefferey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement.

The 50-member opposition component of the Constitutional Committee, however, comprises a significant portion of members allied with Moscow. The rest of the committee is made up of 50 regime representatives. The UN chose the other third.

Yahya Al Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation, said Russia “feels as if the constitutional committee is something that it gave birth to and it should be in charge of”.

But he said that Russia’s quest for UN endorsement makes it impossible to ignore the other powers.

The constitutional talks broke down almost as soon as they started in November, as tensions

between Russia and Turkey grew over the Russian-backed campaign by the regime and its Shiite militias allies to recapture Idlib.

A Turkish military buildup foiled the campaign, although loyalist forces to President Bashar Al Assad made major advances in capturing main highways.

Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition figure, said the constitutional committee was a divergence from the real struggle on the ground in Syria between Turkey and Russia, and to some degree the US, which is present in the oil and farming region of the  northeast.

“The Constitutional Committee shows signs of revival whenever there is stoppage time between Turkey and Russia,” Mr Tello said. “This ground is where the future of Syria will be decided.”