Syria government, opposition launch ‘historic’ constitutional review

Geir O. Pedersen, center, Special Envoy for Syria shakes hands with members of the Government, after the first meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva Switzerland, Wednesday, October 30, 2019. (AP)
Updated 31 October 2019

Syria government, opposition launch ‘historic’ constitutional review

  • The UN-brokered constitutional review committee includes 150 delegates

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.

US official predicts Qatar will eventually normalize ties with Israel

Updated 43 min 47 sec ago

US official predicts Qatar will eventually normalize ties with Israel

CHICAGO: Despite strong Qatari criticism of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, US State Department officials said they expect Qatar to eventually normalize relations with Israel, though they could not provide a timetable.

During a teleconference briefing Thursday morning, Timothy Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf affairs, reminded attendees that Qatar had been the first Gulf nation to allow Israel to open an office in it capital, Doha.

Lenderking suggested Qatar was playing a more positive role than Turkey, which has publicly denounced normalization, although Qatari officials in recent days have said they would not normalize ties with Israel until the resolution of the Palestinian question.

“Qatar also engages with Israel and does so openly, and has done off and on for a number of years. We can point to Qatar’s resolution of a ceasefire here with Hamas and Israel two weeks ago: An excellent example of Qatari boutique diplomacy where they can use their influence and bring about a better situation,” Lenderking insisted.

“Our experience with Qataris who work on that file is that they are very open about those engagements with Israel. They have developed positive relationships with the Israeli officials involved and so we think there is a lot to build on. Every country will move at its own pace at normalization, and according to their own criteria. But we are eager for that to happen sooner rather than later because that does put more building blocks into the region for peace and stability.”

Criticism of the peace accords by Qatar’s state-controlled news media has been harsh, and news reports in the past year have shone a bright spotlight on Qatar’s ties to terrorist organizations, including alleged involvement in funding terrorist attacks that have taken American lives.

Lenderking brushed off controversies surrounding any terrorist ties, which include several lawsuits that name Qatar’s royal family as funding attacks that took the lives or injured as many as 10 Americans in Israel.

A Boston lawsuit filed by six contractors alleged that Sheikh Khaled Al-Thani, the brother of Qatar’s ruling Emir Sheikh Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, ordered them to kill rivals in the US and in Bahrain.

Originally filed in Florida in June 2019 and re-filed in Boston in January 2020, the individuals claimed Sheikh Khaled murdered an Indian national, threatened them all with death if they did not kill the Sheikh’s rivals, and directed a campaign of computer hacking of his racing car industry rivals in the US and Bahrain.  

In another lawsuit, filed June 10, 2020, Qatar’s royal family was accused of funding violence by Hamas, resulting in the killing and maiming of 10 Americans.

The lawsuit filed in New York City accuses several Qatari institutions, including Qatar Charity (formerly known as the Qatar Charitable Society) and Qatar National Bank, of funding violence against Americans in Israel, many with both dual US and Israeli citizenship.

Both lawsuits are in the US federal court system, moving towards public trials.

But Lenderking did not mention the lawsuits or other controversies, and instead offered a defense of Qatar’s position to not normalize relations with Israel.

“It is very much our hope and our intention that all of the countries of the Middle East, not just the Gulf, will normalize with Israel,” he said.

“We think a lot is made about Qatar’s being soft on terrorism. That isn’t actually accurate. We have a very vigorous terrorism engagement with Qatar that I would say has stepped up and got stronger in the last couple of years partly because of the embargo and because of strong US engagement focusing on key areas that may have been weaknesses in the Qatari system before. We know there is more room for improvement. We are confident we are going to see continued improvement over the course of the next year.”

Lenderking added Qatar had tied its criticism to resolving the Palestinian conflict, as have many other Arab nations have done.

“Of course, we have seen the reaction for the Palestinians to the normalization efforts,” Lenderking said. “It is very much our hope that the Palestinians, rather than being discouraged and deflated by this will find it as an opportunity and work with us to return to the negotiating table. It remains a priority for the US.”

On June 5, 2017, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed all diplomatic relations with Qatar and banned their airlines and ships from using GCC airspace or sea routes.

Lenderking argued if the UAE and Bahrain could normalize ties with Israel, the rift between the GCC and Qatar could be resolved, too.

“The future from our point of view looks very bright. There is still the menace of Iran. And I think we need … the Gulf countries to join together and unify to end the Gulf rift and focus more on the common challenges and common threats,” Lenderking advised, adding that the US would not push Qatar to sign a normalization with Israel.

“We didn’t pressure the Emirates to sign with Israel. We didn’t pressure Bahrain to sign with Israel. They are doing this of their own accord recognizing their own national interests,” Lenderking said.

“We do anticipate and hope other countries will be coming forward in the near future. The Abraham Accords have shown potential to ignite new diplomatic possibilities and partnerships.”