Syria government raps 'occupation', opposition urges justice as peace panel opens

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land while the opposition demanded justice and peace on Wednesday at the opening of a U.N.-backed panel meant to usher in reconciliation after 8-1/2 years of civil war.

Members of the Syrian civil society delegation arrive at the United Nations for the first meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The first meeting of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, composed of government and opposition members as well as civil society, is a step forward in what the United Nations says will be a long road to political rapprochement.

Experts question whether President Bashar al-Assad will be willing to cede much in any negotiations after his Russian- and Iranian-back forces recaptured large areas of the country in offensives against rebels and militants since 2015.

In opening remarks, Ahmad Kuzbari, the panel’s government co-chair, hit out at “terrorism” - a reference to insurgents - and hailed “the sacrifices and heroic deeds of our army.”

He added: “The presence of any occupying forces on our territory, the spoliation of the resources of our country, the continuing imposition of unilateral sanctions threaten the entire political process as well as being in contradiction with international legitimacy.”

However, Kuzbari hailed the talks as “one of the entry points to the political process to solve the crisis that has ravaged our beloved homeland”.

Opposition co-chair Hadi al-Bahra said 65 percent of Syria’s infrastructure had been destroyed, adding: “It is time for us to believe that victory in Syria is achieving justice and peace, not winning the war.

“The memory of 1 million victims must guide us out of this dark tunnel. The aspirations of millions of Syrians to go back to their homeland and find their loved ones must be our compass,” al-Bahra said.

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Government and opposition delegations sat stony-faced opposite each other in a gilded hall at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva, convened by U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen with the backing of major powers.

The 150-member committee is designed to pave the way for political reform and free and fair, U.N.-supervised elections in Syria, where the war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to flee since March 2011.

The government, Syrian opposition and civil society groups each have 50 members serving on the panel. Each delegation includes Kurds, but there is no representation from the SDF militia or its main Kurdish YPG component.

A sub-group of 45 is charged with drafting a new constitution or revising the 2012 one.

“This is an historic moment,” Pedersen said, while recognizing that it was not easy for the delegations to sit in the same room and the “road ahead will not be easy”.

“But the fact that you are here sitting together face-to-face ready to start a dialogue and negotiations is I believe a powerful sign of hope for Syrians everywhere, both inside and outside the country.”

The co-chairs did not shake hands at the end of the 45-minute ceremony.

Turkey, which supports anti-Assad rebels, has joined Iran and Russia, the Syrian president’s main backers, in claiming credit for the initiative. The United States, Britain and France also worked in the past year to convene the talks.

“The amount of effort that the Syrian government has put into not having this occur is for us a good indicator that the Syrian government fears that this assembly and the momentum, the political momentum that it will represent, is inimical to its desire to achieve a total military victory,” James Jeffrey, U.S. special representative for Syria, told reporters last Friday.

“Of course they are delaying.”

Additional reporting by Emma Farge; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich