October 24, 2019 / 4:55 PM / a month ago

Syria ceasefire holding ahead of Constitutional Committee: U.N. envoy tells Reuters

GENEVA (Reuters) - A ceasefire in northeast Syria seems to be holding “by and large”, as major powers gather in Geneva ahead of the first meeting of Syria’s Constitutional Committee next week, the U.N. Special Envoy told Reuters on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Geir Pedersen said that envoys from 7 Arab and Western states backing the opposition, known as the “small group”, which includes the United States, are due to meet in the Swiss city on Friday.

Senior officials from the so-called Astana three - Russia, Iran and Turkey - were expected in coming days, but he awaited confirmation.

The major powers would not participate directly in the “Syrian-owned, Syrian-led” constitutional effort, or the opening public ceremony, but they supported the process, he said.

Talks are on track despite Turkey’s cross-border offensive launched on Oct. 9 after President Donald Trump ordered U.S. forces out of northeast Syria. Turkey and Russia, the Assad government’s main ally, have agreed a peace plan calling for Kurdish forces to withdraw more than 30 km (20 miles) from the Turkish border.

“It seems that by and large that the ceasefire is holding.

That of course doesn’t mean that there will not be challenges,” Pedersen said in an interview in his U.N. office.

He had reports that some of the 160,000 people who fled the incursion are starting to return to their homes.

Convening the Constitutional Committee, the first tangible progress since the Norwegian diplomat took up the U.N. job in January, is seen as key to paving the way for political reforms and new elections in the country wracked by 8 years of war that have killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to flee.

“No one believes that the Constitutional Committee in itself will solve the conflict. But if it is understood as part of a broader political process, it could be a door-opener and a very important of course symbolic beginning of a political process,” Pedersen said.

“HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY”

An agreement was reached under which the Assad government, the Syrian opposition and civil society each submitted 50 members to serve on the panel. Each delegation includes Kurds, but there is no SDF or YPG representation, he said.

A group of 45 is to start drafting a document.

“I believe it is a historic occasion and of course for 150 Syrians to meet and to discuss a new Constitutional arrangement for their own country, that’s a heavy responsibility,” he said.

“In the end they will decide what kind of Constitution, or constitutional reform, will be necessary for Syria,” he added.

Pedersen said that the two co-chairs were Ahmad Kuzbari for the Syrian government and Hadi AlBahra for the opposition.

“I think both the Astana 3 and the ‘Small Group’ will hopefully express their continued full support to the constitutional process and the broader political process,” he said.

In recent weeks, he has held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus and SNC opposition figures in Riyadh on the new constitutional panel, and on prisoner releases to build confidence.

Each side has freed some 50 prisoners in four simultaneous releases over the past year, he said, adding: “My appeal to both sides has been to have more substantial releases”.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood

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