Constructive International Diplomacy Needed to Support Long-Delayed Meeting of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, Special Envoy Tells Security Council

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Members Call for Nationwide Ceasefire, Release of Political Prisoners, while Urging Meaningful Action on Missing Persons

Preparations are well under way to convene the Small Body of the Syrian‑owned and Syrian-led Constitutional Committee in Geneva on 24 August, but ending the conflict in the country also requires constructive diplomacy among key international players, the senior United Nations negotiator facilitating peace negotiations told the Security Council during a 19 August videoconference meeting*.

Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, expressed hope that forthcoming opportunities for direct contacts among key players will enable them to deepen their conversations and bridge the often‑significant gaps between their stated positions. “I see ample scope for key internationals players to make a difference, working together and with Syrians, step by step, on a range of issues critical to realizing my mandate”, as set out in resolution 2254 (2015).

He went on to cite the release of detainees and abductees, and clarifying the fate of missing persons; creating a safe environment for the return of refugees; a new Constitution and free, fair and inclusive elections under United Nations supervision; addressing the presence of the five foreign armies inside Syria; and fully restoring the country’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity. “There are also other issues where there remains ample room for constructive diplomacy, such as sanctions and working towards Syria’s economic recovery and prosperity,” he added. For now, the focus should be on supporting the members of the Constitutional Committee to deepen their work and build some confidence for a political route out of the conflict in Syria, he emphasized, pointing out that the conflict is now in its tenth year.

He went on to note that the Committee brings together the Government of Syria, the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission and the Middle Third List representing Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women, and said its work has been on hiatus for nine months due to differences over its agenda and COVID-19 restrictions. Encouraging its members to come to Geneva ready to engage “in earnest and on the substance”, based on the agenda agreed by the two Co-Chairs and without preconditions, he stressed: “This is important because millions of Syrians continue to face immense suffering and do not have the luxury of time to await a political breakthrough of some kind.”

Highlighting both the collapse of the Syrian economy and the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country, including within camps for internally displaced persons, he asked for the Council’s continued support in terms of humanitarian access to those in need of relief, and sustaining sanctions waivers to ensure access to food and essential medical supplies. He went on to reiterate the need for a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire — as called for in resolution 2254 (2015) — to enable an all-out effort to combat the pandemic.

Summarizing the security situation, he said that calm in the north-west, the result of efforts by the Russian Federation and Turkey, continues largely to hold. However, there have been reports over the past month of sustained attacks, including the targeting of a joint Russian-Turkish patrol with an improvised explosive device. Urging the Russian Federation and Turkey to contain all escalatory incidents and dynamics, restore calm and continue their cooperation, he stressed that all relevant actors must also ensure that actions directed at Council-listed terrorist groups are effective, targeted and in line with international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) continue to grow in frequency and impact, he noted. As for north-eastern Syria, ongoing skirmishes and security incidents in and around Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ain resulted in civilian casualties; an attack on 18 August against Russian Federation troops in Deir-ez-Zor left a Russian general dead and two officers injured; and there were reports earlier this week of an altercation between Syrian Government and United States forces. In the south-west, he added, geopolitical tensions remain acute, with Israel saying it has carried out air strikes on military targets in the vicinity of the Syrian Golan Heights.

The 150-member Constitutional Committee, established in September 2019, has met only twice, most recently from 25 to 29 November 2019. Its Small Body, comprising 45 members, bears primary responsibility for drafting a fresh Constitution.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the United States said it is ironic that the Council is discussing the political situation in Syria just five days after its vote on renewing the arms embargo on Iran, noting: “Iran’s support for its proxies in Syria only helps to bolster the Assad regime and undermine the United Nations process.” She went on to emphasize that next week’s Constitutional Committee meeting should move beyond past discussions of first principles and focus instead on constitutional reforms. United Nations facilitators should push back against any attempt by any delegation to stall the Committee’s substantive work, she said, expressing hope that Committee members will stay in Geneva for weeks, not just a day or two. Hopefully, they will agree to a schedule of future rounds of meetings throughout the fall of 2020, thus showing the Syrian people that progress is being made.

She went on to announce that Jim Jeffrey, United States Special Envoy for Syria, and Special Envoy Joel Rayburn will travel to Geneva next week to underline her delegation’s support for the United Nations-led political process. She called upon the Assad regime “and its Russian and Iranian enablers” to commit to the political process by halting all further attacks and to immediately release the more than 100,000 Syrians who remain in arbitrary detention. She went on to underline that there will be no reconstruction, no diplomatic recognition and no sanctions relief until a political process, in line with resolution 2254 (2015), is irreversibly under way. “It is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war and rampant corruption to come to an end,” she said.

Estonia’s representative expressed concern over sporadic clashes in the Idlib area and the persistent threat of terrorism, adding that a roadside bombing in Deir ez-Zor on 18 August was likely the work of ISIL extremists. Expressing hope that the next round of Constitutional Committee talks will speed up the political process and address the legitimate concerns of the Syrian opposition, he emphasized, however, that a new Constitution is not enough. Estonia calls for the release of political prisoners and those who have been arbitrarily detained, clarification of the fate of missing persons, and free elections under United Nations supervision. In the meantime, Estonia and the European Union remain committed to a lasting solution based on resolution 2254 (2015) and the 2012 Geneva communiqué.

South Africa’s representative welcomed the forthcoming Constitutional Committee meeting in Geneva as a long-awaited step on the path to a Syrian-led and -owned political process. Calling on all participants to actively engage, he said the only way forward is through meaningful dialogue and an effective ceasefire that would allow the political process to continue. Parties should continue to engage in trust and confidence measures. Turning to the rapid spread of COVID-19, he called on all parties to release detainees and political prisoners. Welcoming the Syrian authorities’ measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, he said the international community must lift unilateral coercive economic measures imposed on the Government with a view to enhancing response efforts. Reiterating concerns at the continued presence of foreign and armed forces in Syria, he said external interference must end, especially in terms of the support provided to these armed groups. Equally concerned at the continued presence of terrorist groups, he said that, while all States have the sovereign right to address the threat of terrorism in their own countries, actions to counter terrorism must be in compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law. As the political and humanitarian tracks in Syria are interlinked, he called on all stakeholders to promote progress in both areas to ensure a sustainable and peaceful settlement to the conflict.

France’s representative called upon participants in next week’s Constitutional Committee meeting to take part in good faith and without conditions or delaying tactics. While expressing hope for real progress on the new Constitution, she said: “Unfortunately, we have every reason to be pessimistic about future discussions.” Sham parliamentary elections in July demonstrated that the regime is locking itself into a dictatorial logic and following its own timetable, in defiance of resolution 2254 (2015), she said, also citing lack of progress on detained and missing persons as another negative signal. She emphasized that a lasting and verifiable ceasefire agreement, under the aegis of the United Nations, is essential to resuming the political process and ensuring the smooth delivery of humanitarian aid. Syria remains far from the safe and neutral environment required for a political transition and free and fair elections in which all Syrians, including refugees and displaced persons, can participate. She went on to state that, with a major upsurge of COVID-19, in addition to the humanitarian disaster, France and its European Union partners stand resolutely by the Syrian people, as demonstrated by the commitments made at the Brussels IV donors’ conference.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said that a successful outcome in Geneva depends on all parties engaging constructively, in good faith and with mutual respect, emphasizing that their efforts must aim to ease the precarious living situation of the Syrian people and to restore their rights and livelihoods. He went on to stress that women’s voices must resonate louder than ever, especially within the Constitutional Committee, where their participation must be full and meaningful. He also underscored the rights of the families of detainees and missing persons, requesting that the Special Envoy do more in that regard.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines urged all parties to abide by the ceasefire and to exercise maximum restraint, reiterating calls for a complete and immediate nationwide cessation of hostilities. She reminded the parties that military and counter-terrorism operations, although necessary for the protection of Syria and the region, must comply with the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The COVID-19 pandemic compounds the urgent need for lasting peace and stability in Syria, she said, adding that nationwide calm will allow for a more robust response to the pandemic. Noting that Syria’s economy is in danger of collapse, she said it was under intensified pressure arising from unilateral coercive measures. The latter should be lifted as they are inconsistent with international law, frustrate efforts to stabilize and revitalize the economy and now have the potential to undermine Syria’s pandemic response, she said. Troubled by the unresolved issues of detainees, abductees and missing persons, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines calls for meaningful priority action on those matters, she added.

Also participating were representatives of the Russian Federation, Niger, China, Germany, United Kingdom, Tunisia, Viet Nam, Belgium, Indonesia and Syria.

  • Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.