UN envoy invites Syrian opponents for constitution talks in Geneva despite Russia's opposition

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. special envoy for Syria issued formal invitations to the Syrian government and opposition groups on Tuesday to meet in Geneva in late April to resume negotiations on revising the country’s constitution, despite opposition from Damascus’ key ally Russia.

Moscow insists the Swiss city is not a neutral venue because Switzeland's government supports Ukraine.

Geir Pedersen told the U.N. Security Council that he has tried unsuccessfully for more than 18 months to get the parties to agree on a venue to continue meetings of the Constitution Committee, whose hoped-for revised document is a key step on the road map to peace in the war-torn country.

The Syria conflict that broke out in March 2011 has killed half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million.

Pedersen said he reminded the parties they agreed on Geneva as the venue and stressed “that the process should take place without foreign interference" and as the facilitator for the Syrian-led negotiations on the constitution, he was designated to find a way forward, including exploring all possible alternatives.

“I believe the only way forward at this time is to reconvene in Geneva at least as a bridging proposal while there is no consensus on an alternative venue, while also remaining open to an alternative venue for future sessions if consensus is found,” he said.

He also appealed to Syrian parties “to respond positively and to all key international stakeholders to support the UN’s actions as a facilitator and refrain from interfering regarding a venue the Syrian parties themselves have formally agreed.”

Pedersen also said it’s important for the Constitutional Committee to meet as soon as possible and to continue its work.

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, with a smaller 45-member body to 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.

A 2012 U.N. roadmap to peace in Syria approved by representatives of the U.N., Arab League, European Union, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members called for the drafting of a new constitution and a U.N.-supervised election with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate. A Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed the road map.

In late October 2021, Pedersen told the council the government delegation presented a proposed constitutional text on Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and submitted a second text on terrorism and extremism. Representatives of the exiled opposition presented a text on the armed forces, security and intelligence agencies while civil society groups submitted a section on the rule of law, he said.

But he said that committee talks the previous week failed mainly because the Syrian government refused to negotiate revisions to the constitution.