Syria’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land and the opposition demanded justice and peace on Wednesday at the opening of a UN-backed panel designed to bring about political reconciliation ending years of civil war.
The first meeting of Syria’s so-called 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 the government of President Bashar al-Assad would be willing to give away much at the negotiating table after consolidating its military control on the ground.
In opening remarks at an opening ceremony, Ahmad Kuzbari, the committee’s government co-chair, hit out at “terrorism” and hailed “the sacrifices and heroic deeds” of our army.
He added: “The occupation of our territory, the spoliation of our resources, the continuing imposing of unilateral sanctions threaten the entire political process as well as being in contradiction with international legitimacy”.
Opposition co-chair Hadi al-Bahra said 65 percent of Syria had been damaged, adding: “It is time for us to believe victory in Syria is achieving justice and peace not winning the war.”
Government and opposition delegations sat stony-faced opposite each other in a gilded hall at the UN European headquarters in Geneva, convened by UN 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 UN-supervised elections in the country, 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 a 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 you are here sitting face-to-face ready to start a dialogue and negotiations is I believe a powerful sign of Syrians everywhere, both inside and outside the country.”
The co-chairs did not shake hands at the end of the 45-minute ceremony.
“It is just the beginning of a very difficult process which is going to be extremely challenging to manage,” Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a news conference on Tuesday night after meeting his counterparts Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov in the Swiss city.
“It must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led, it must be viable and seen as such by the Syrian people,” he said.
“I think overall you find a good representation of all the Syrian people within the committee,” al-Bahra told Reuters when asked about the Kurds.
Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels, joined Iran and Russia, the main backers of Assad, in claiming credit for the initiative.