Skip to content

Progress turns to frustration over Syria talks

A sixth round of Syrian talks on a new constitution ended in disappointment at the United Nations in Geneva, three-quarters of a year since the last round.

Syria's port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast
Syria's port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast (AN/Bader Jaber)

GENEVA (AN) — It had been three-quarters of a year since the last round of talks, so just getting back to the negotiating table was considered progress. As with previous sessions, however, the sixth round of Syrian talks to draft a new constitution ended as a "big disappointment," the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, told reporters on Friday.

The weeklong talks within the United Nations' European headquarters at the Palais des Nations opened at the start of the week, nearly two years since the first meetings of the Syrian constitutional committee began. The committee's initial 150 participants were winnowed down to three teams of government, opposition and civil society representatives, each with 15 members.

"This drafting committee has met for five times, but after the fifth meeting in January this year, we concluded that we are not making sufficient progress, and that we could not continue the way we have been working," the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, told reporters just ahead of the talks.

"Since then, close to nine months, I have been negotiating between the parties, trying to be able to establish a consensus on how we are going to move forward. And I am very pleased to say that we have reached such a consensus," he said. "So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria."

It was not to be. Though the different sides had agreed on a mechanism for drafting the war-battered nation's constitution, each of the sides did little more than offer their views on basic principles about sovereignty, armed forces, intelligence, rule of law, terrorism and extremism.

"I think we had three days, I would say, that went rather well, and one day that was more difficult. But in the end, good discussions on the different principles that were presented," said Pedersen.

On Friday, they had agreed to "concentrate on bringing forward the principles that were discussed, and see if we could reach what I would call some kind of provisional agreement, or at least, maybe on part of it, or a whole principle or if not agreeing on what we disagree on," he said.

"I think it is fair to say that the discussion today was a big disappointment," Pedersen said. "We did not manage to achieve what we had hoped to achieve, that we would have a good discussion on how to reach forward for some kind of a consensus."

Edging towards new governance

Pedersen said the sides "lacked a proper understanding on how to move that process forward, so in the end it was — the government delegation decided not to present any new text, the opposition decided that it would respond to the two texts that were presented by the government and indeed by the civil society group. And based on that we had a round, but that round did not produce any understanding on commonalities."

Syria’s civil war has killed more than half a million people and displaced half the nation’s 22 million pre-war population since President Bashar Assad’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011.

Assad has clung to power with backing from Russia and Iran, despite the burden of economic sanctions directed against Syria by the United States and other Western nations. More than 13 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and close to 90% are living below the poverty line.

Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat with experience in several U.N. roles, has overseen the process to draft a new Syrian constitution and system of governance. He announced last month that the committee's member had reached an agreement on the sixth round's methodology to include procedural rules, texts with basic principles and regular co-chair meetings.

Assad’s government agreed to changes in the nation’s charter while the opposition, supported by Turkey, sought a new constitution. The U.N.-authorized assembly to draft a constitution is rooted in a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution.

As with the fifth round, the sixth round ended with no agreement on a date for a next round, Pedersen said.

"In the end, we will need an understanding between all three delegations, that we reach a consensus and that we did not reach," he told reporters. "So, when I look at it, I can see that here there are possibilities, but as long as the parties themselves have not concluded that there are commonalities, I am not the one to conclude on their behalf."