A long-awaited Syrian constitutional committee has been finalized after nearly two years of negotiations and is set to convene in the coming weeks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday.
Guterres told reporters at the U.N. headquarters that the Syrian government and opposition ironed out all their differences on an agreement, which is to create the 150-member committee made up of members of both sides as well as civil society members. It is tasked with drafting a new constitution for the civil-war-torn nation in talks facilitated by the U.N. in Geneva. The committee is seen as an important step toward potentially ending the more than eight-year conflict, which has killed over 400,000 people.
"I strongly believe that the launch of the Syrian-owned and Syrian-led Constitutional Committee can and must be the beginning of the political path out of the tragedy toward a solution," Guterres said. He called the committee "credible, balanced and inclusive" and said it meets the aspirations of all Syrians.
The European Union welcomed the establishment of the committee, saying it was "long awaited welcome news that gives back hope to the Syrians."
"The EU has consistently affirmed that any sustainable solution to the conflict requires a genuine political transition... negotiated by the Syrian parties within the UN led Geneva process," a statement released by the office of EU foreign affairs high representative Federica Mogherini, reiterating the EU's "full support" for the UN Special Envoy in "his continued efforts."
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Syria is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2021, and the U.N. hopes that the talks over the constitution can help create a climate and mechanism for holding free and fair elections. But President Bashar Assad's government, which has all but won the war militarily with the help of Russia, is highly unlikely to offer any concessions on that front and Syrian officials have suggested the president will run again.
The opposition says there can be no overall political resolution to the conflict as long as he remains in power.
A cease-fire took effect at the end of August, halting a major government offensive on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country.
Idlib is mostly controlled by the al-Qaida-linked militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The constitutional committee has been planned since a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, but it has taken nearly 20 months for the sides to agree on the membership — particularly on a list of experts, independents, tribal leaders and women to make up part of the group. The U.N. was authorized to put together the list but the choices faced objections, mainly from the Syrian government.
"The constitutional committee's launch and work must be accompanied by concrete actions to build trust and confidence," Guterres said in a statement.
His announcement came after Syria's state news agency SANA reported earlier Monday that Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem was meeting with U.N. special envoy Geir Pedersen in Damascus. Al-Moallem said the discussion focused on the committee's setup and guarantees that it be free "from any foreign intervention."
SANA added that only the Syrian people should have the right to determine their future "without external pressures in what guarantees restoring security and stability to all parts of Syria."
Al-Moallem, according to SANA, said that Damascus will have the right to continue fighting "terrorism in accordance with international law."
Guterres said last week that agreement on the committee's composition had been reached, and "final work" on the arrangements was under way.
Noa Landau contributed to this report.