UN envoy hopes for Syria constitution committee next month

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The UN special envoy for Syria said on Thursday he is “quietly hopeful” the United Nations can announce agreement to launch a Syrian constitutional committee before world leaders gather in late September, which could open the door to a broader political process to end the eight-year conflict.

Geir Pedersen told the Security Council that the package to resolve outstanding names and terms of reference and rules of procedure “is nearly finalized, and the outstanding differences are, in my assessment, comparatively minor.”

Looking at Syria today, he painted a grim picture of a country with large areas fragmented between different parties and called the scale of violence and instability “extremely alarming.”

He cited an ever-rising death toll, millions displaced, “untold tens of thousands detained or missing,” a resurgent ISIS extremist group stepping up guerrilla attacks - and no real political process yet.

Pedersen criticized the Syrian government offensive in the last rebel-held stronghold in Idlib in northwest Syria that began in late April and has led to escalating casualties and massive displacement.

He also said attacks by terrorist groups, which the government says it is targeting, must cease.

“But counter-terrorism cannot put 3 million civilians at risk who have a right to protection” under international law,” Pedersen said.

“The actions that are killing and displacing them must stop now,” he said. “The situation in Idlib needs a predominantly political solution.”

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said more than 500 civilians have been killed and many hundreds injured since the government offensive began. UN health and children’s agencies report that 43 health facilities, 87 educational facilities, 29 water stations and seven markets have been affected by the fighting, he said.

UN-supported systems have also recorded the movement of 576,000 displaced people since May, between three and four times the figure recorded during violence in Eastern Ghouta last year, Lowcock said.

“Many of these people are living in the open air, frequently protected only by a plastic sheet,” he said.

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, whose country is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said Syria wouldn’t be facing “these terrible problems and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people” without “the terrorists” and efforts by Western powers to overthrow the government.

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Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told the council that his government and Russia “do not attack civilian targets” - only “terrorists.”

He also denied there are 3 million Syrians in Idlib, calling it a small province whose population has now surpassed a million.

Polyansky said Moscow is taking “active measures to promote the political process” and is optimistic the preparations for a constitutional committee will soon be completed.

“A lot has already been done,” he said. “Any confrontational or unbalanced discussions, including within the UN, will not help the progress towards a political settlement in Syria.”

Pedersen said there is “a strong understanding” between Syria’s government and opposition that there be two equal co-chairmen of the constitutional committee, one from each side. He said there is also such a view about “a 75 percent voting threshold while striving for consensus” on constitutional provisions as well as having a large group of 150 members and a small one of 45 members.

He said the Russian and Turkish governments “have been of particular assistance,” and he told the council he is ready to return to Damascus in the very near future “as part of completing the work.” He said he also appreciates the strong support from the US and several European and Arab countries as well as the European Union.

International players need to deepen their dialogue and support the UN-facilitated process, he said.

It’s also time for the three countries in the Astana process - Russia, Turkey and Iran - and the so-called Small Group comprising Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to come together “in a very practical way,” Pedersen said.

Meanwhile, a draft Security Council resolution focused on the humanitarian impact of the conflict has been circulated by Belgium, Germany and Kuwait.

Belgium’s UN ambassador, Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, told the council that the resolution is in response to the escalating fighting and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Idlib and will call for a cease-fire, respect for international humanitarian law and humanitarian access.

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