Geneva, Switzerland – Rival sides in Syria‘s long-running war have sat face to face for the first time after almost eight-and-a-half years of war, in an attempt to begin work on a new governing document.
A total of 150 delegates representing the government, opposition and civil society on Wednesday met at a constitutional committee meeting held inside the Council Chamber of the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland.
The members of the constitutional committee, which took almost two years of consultations to be formed, are tasked with reforming the Constitution before is put to the vote of the Syrian people.
“I know it is not easy for all of you to be here together in this room,” UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the gathering, acknowledging the enormously difficult task ahead.
“But the fact you are here, face to face, is a powerful sign of hope for all Syrians, everywhere.”
“Today could become the beginning of something new, something meaningful for Syria and for Syrians everywhere. Together, we can make this come through. Tomorrow, the hard work begins.” @UNEnvoySyria opens the inaugural session of the Constitutional Committee for #Syria. pic.twitter.com/RKtFRqtJpu
— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) October 30, 2019
Pedersen said reforming the Constitution is the first step towards the beginning for a political process that will lead to UN-supervised elections under UN resolution 2254. However, the envoy stressed the process will have to be Syrian-led and Syrian-owned.
“Do not expect me or my team to tell you what to write in your constitution. The future constitution belongs to Syrians, to the Syrian people and them alone”, Pedersen said.
Amendments to the current chart, which was passed in February 2012 by President Bashar al-Assad in response to the civil unrest that had begun the previous year, will be at the core of the works of the drafting group, a smaller 45-member committee.
The current constitution leaves al-Assad and his Baath Party with almost unchallenged powers and in control of the country’s judiciary, army and security forces. The opposition never accepted the 2012 amendments and has since been calling for a new constitution.
“The 2012 constitution was good in some parts, 70 percent of it could be salvaged,” Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition group, told Al Jazeera. “But we could not accept the president to be in control of the army, the legislative assembly, the administration of the country, to be in charge of nominating the prime minister and so forth.”
The co-chair on the government’s side, Ahmad Kuzbari, said his delegation was ready to review the 2012 constitution, or even draft a new one if that would bring positive changes to the life of Syrians.
In a speech that was met positively by the opposition members, Kuzbari said the government would act with sincerity “but we will work to preserve the unity, integrity and sovereignty of our state, free of any foreign interference.”
Opposition leader Hadi al-Bahra, meanwhile, said his group was determined to work with the government to find common ground.
“The 150 people meeting today have diverging opinions on many issues, some are simple, other substantive,” he said. “However, we must go beyond our wounds and suffering and start listening to each other.”
“Hate speech cannot be addressed with more hate speech, violence with violence, Syria should stop this cycle and preserve what is left of the country,” he said.
But al-Bahra stressed other issues will have to be addressed – above all, the fate of the thousands detained and abductees by both sides. The issue was comprised in one of the so-called “four baskets” the UN had identified as essential in creating a climate of trust between the opposing sides.
Russia and Iran, major allies of the government, and Turkey, which backs the opposition, said on Tuesday evening they would fully support the constitutional committee.
“There is no other game in town,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Andrey Kortunov, the director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council think-tank, told Al Jazeera the new constitution is important, but not sufficient to put an end to the turmoil in Syria.
“Many other things are needed, including an international agreement on the post-conflict reconstruction. And, of course, all sides should do their best to avoid any escalation of military activities.”
Since the start of the war in 2011, half of the country’s 22-million population is displaced internally or in neighbouring countries, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UN figures.
More than half of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed in a conflict that has also drawn in foreign powers.