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Envoy says Syrian peace talks restoring trust

The U.N. special envoy to Syria said peace talks built "a little bit" more confidence and trust among government, opposition and civil society representatives.

GENEVA (AN) — The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, said three days of peace talks ended on Saturday with "a little bit" more confidence and trust built up among government, opposition and civil society representatives.

"I believe that the tone was respectful, that people were listening to each other, and that goes for all the three delegations," he told a news conference. Pedersen said three teams of Syrian representatives, each with 15 members, met for one session on Thursday afternoon, another one on Friday and two more on Saturday. No specific date or agenda has been set for a future session.

"Obviously, there are still very strong disagreements and my Syrian friends are, of course, never afraid of expressing those disagreements," he said. "But let me say that I am confident that we have been able to build a little bit of confidence, a little bit of trust."

At the start of the week, Pedersen said he was forced to put the peace talks on "hold" due to COVID-19 infections among four members of the Syrian committee working on a possible new constitution for Syria. His office said the participants had the coronavirus already when they arrived at the peace talks.

The peace talks were paused for three days. But on Thursday, Pedersen announced that they could resume within the United Nations' European headquarters at the Palais des Nations. They marked the first time any such meetings have been held in nine months.

He told reporters in a brief statement that health authorities advised his office could "resume its meetings, with full social distancing and related precautions in place."

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011 sparked a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half the nation’s 22 million pre-war population.

The war has led to one of the 21st century’s worst humanitarian catastrophes and the rise and fall and continued survival of the Islamic State group.

Diplomats from Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States have been monitoring the U.N.-led peace talks, which have made little progress. Assad's government wants changes to the nation's charter; the opposition favors a new constitution.

No end to war in sight

Assad’s pro-government forces systematically targeted medical facilities, attacking doctors, nurses and medical volunteers. The attacks compounded the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians, including 1 million civilians — mainly women and children — camped by the Syria-Turkey border, according to the United Nations.

In October 2019, Turkey launched an offensive to eradicate the Kurdish militia after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled U.S. forces out of northeastern Syria, where Kurds developed a system of self-rule.

Weeks later, Syrian peace talks were held for the first time in Geneva under the auspices of a new Syrian constitutional committee, a U.N.-authorized assembly of 150 government, opposition and civil society members. They were the first face-to-face talks between Syria’s government and opposition mediated by the United Nations to try to end the war.

The Syrian-led assembly grew out of a U.N. Security Council resolution in December 2015 that called for a Syrian-led, U.N.-mediated political process to create "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" and to set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution.

Pedersen views the constitution as an important step towards hopefully ending the devastation of Syria's more than nine-year civil war. He has said the 2015 resolution is the only framework for negotiating a peace settlement that has legitimacy and support from the international community.

The assembly's makeup, however, has been shaped by the diplomatic efforts of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russia and Iran strongly support Assad’s government, while Turkey supports the Syrian rebels.

"You know, it has been absolutely fascinating to listen to the discussions that we have been having," Pedersen observed. "There are quite a few areas of commonalities, but obviously after nearly 10 years of conflict there are many areas where there are still strong disagreements, and this will take time, of course, to work through those areas. That work has already started, and it will continue."