GENEVA: Syrian government and opposition negotiators sat face-to-face on Wednesday to launch a committee tasked with amending the country’s constitution, a meeting hailed by the UN as marking “a new chapter” for the war-torn nation.
The UN-brokered constitutional review committee includes 150 delegates — divided equally among President Bashar Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society.
Hopes remain dim that the group will reach a breakthrough toward a political resolution to Syria’s eight-year conflict, which has killed more than 370,000 people.
But UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen said the meeting amounted to “a historic moment” and “a new chapter for Syria.”
“I know that it is not easy for all of you to be here together,” Pedersen said, conceding that “the road ahead will not be easy.”
Experts have argued that Assad — whose forces have made major gains against the opposition — has little to lose at the talks and will walk away before making any significant compromises.
His lead negotiator Ahmad Kuzbari praised the country’s existing charter as “a modern constitution.”
“But this does not prevent us from meeting to consider possible amendments, or changes to the current constitution, and putting a new constitution in place, one that ... effects positive change,” he added.
In opening remarks that also included tough rhetoric against those battling Assad, Kuzbari insisted that Syrian forces would continue fighting regardless of ongoing diplomacy.
“We have been fighting terrorism before the meeting, and we will wage this battle during the meeting and afterward, until we liberate every inch of our nation’s precious land,” he said.
The head of the opposition delegation, Hadi Albahra, described the meeting as “a first step on a long path to recovery.”
“We all know that 150 people meeting today in this room have diverging opinions,” he said.
“But after eight painful years of suffering in Syria we came here to look for similarities.”
Following Wednesday’s ceremony, meetings between the 150 will take place before a smaller group of 45 delegates will begin work drafting the constitution.
There is no deadline for the process and Pedersen said the aim would be to reach consensus on all issues.
Where that is not possible, changes would only be made with a 75-percent majority vote in the committee to avoid having any one side dictate the results.
Constitutional review is a central part of the UN’s peace plan for Syria, which was defined by Security Council resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015.
The resolution also calls for UN-supervised elections.