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Major powers report progress on Syria

China Daily | Updated: 2018-12-20 09:12
(From left) Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shakes hands after a meeting on Tuesday in Geneva. FABRICE COFFRINI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Moscow, Teheran and Ankara call for a constitutional body to meet early in 2019

GENEVA-Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United Nations have voiced hope that a committee charged with writing a new Syrian Constitution will start work early next year.

The Damascus government has not yet agreed to the committee, saying it will only support a process that alters Syria's existing Constitution.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov-flanked by his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkey's Mevlut Cavusoglu-read a joint declaration after talks with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in Geneva.

Russia, Iran and opposition backer Turkey "agreed to take efforts aimed at convening the first session of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva early next year", Lavrov said.

Lavrov who spoke for the ministers said that at Tuesday's meeting of three foreign ministers, "they presented positive results of their consultations with the Syrian parties on the composition of the Constitutional Committee".

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: "Slowly, we are reaching a conclusion", suggesting there were still disagreements over which civil society groups would participate.

"We have reached an important step in our work toward the Syrian Constitutional Committee," he told reporters.

The committee has become the centerpiece of UN peace efforts in Syria and aims to set up elections that can turn the page on seven years of devastating war.

De Mistura, who will be replaced as UN envoy on Jan 1, praised the "significant joint input" from the three powers. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Geir Pedersen to succeed de Mistura.

There is still "an extra mile" to go in the marathon effort to ensure the necessary package for a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee, he said.

The 150-member committee, which has been a year in the making, is intended to represent the Syrian government, the opposition and civil society and is seen as key to holding free elections and ending the seven-year civil conflict.

The formation of the committee was agreed upon in January during inter-Syrian talks, brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey, in Sochi, Russia.

But the United States, which has tense relations with Russia and Iran, recalled that the initial goal had been to set up the body within 2018.

"The establishment and convening by the end of the year of a credible and balanced constitutional committee in Geneva is an important step to lasting de-escalation and a political solution to this conflict," US State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters in Washington.

Positive spin?

The meeting marked a final moment in de Mistura's four-year tenure, which did not produce a breakthrough for peace.

An op-ed in Syria's al-Watan newspaper on Tuesday underscored de Mistura's tense relationship with the Syrian government.

"In Damascus, we will never be sorry for Staffan de Mistura's departure," the newspaper said.

The veteran UN diplomat tried to put a positive spin on his fraught peace push by suggesting that protracted rounds of diplomacy helped limit bloodshed in Syria.

De Mistura said he had been contacted by an individual, whom he did not identify, who had conducted "various extrapolations" which indicated that UN-backed talks had saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

"The fact that you have been coming up constantly with your team with new meetings, preparatory meetings, inter-discussions, ceasefires that didn't work and then worked and didn't work again,... we have been calculating that instead of 540,000 people (dead) there would have been 1.3 million," de Mistura told reporters, quoting the unnamed individual.

A UN spokesperson later said that de Mistura was citing an estimated death toll of 540,000 people for Syria that includes combatants.

AFP - AP - XINHUA

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