UNITED NATIONS (AP) — UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said Wednesday that he will make a final effort before stepping down next month to advance toward a new constitution for Syria — a key step in ending the country’s civil war.
De Mistura announced at the end of a Security Council briefing that he is leaving the job in late November for “purely, purely personal reasons” related to his family after four years and four months in one of the toughest UN jobs.
He told council members that objections by the Syrian government are still holding up the launch of the committee meant to draft a new constitution.
While there is agreement on the 50-member government and opposition delegations for the drafting committee, de Mistura said the government objects to a third 50-member delegation that the UN put together representing Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women.
De Mistura said he has been invited to Damascus next week to discuss the committee’s formation.
He said he also intends to invite senior officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran — the guarantor states in the so-called “Astana process” aimed at ending the violence in Syria — to meet him in Geneva, and to talk to a group of key countries comprising Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the United States.
“I would hope then to be in a position to issue invitations to convene the constitutional committee, hopefully during November,” de Mistura said. “I offer no predictions whether this is possible. What I do know is that after nine months of preparations it is important to launch a credible, constitutional committee.”
The UN envoy indicated he still faces an uphill struggle.
During last month’s high-level General Assembly meeting, he said, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem “strongly cast doubt” on the agreement to draft a new constitution that was reached in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on Jan. 30. Al-Moallem called for a “fundamental reassessment” of the 50-member delegation the UN was authorized to put together as well as the rules of procedure and UN’s role as the facilitator, de Mistura said.
Russia and Iran, which back Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, have also called that list into question but are continuing talks, de Mistura said. He said senior Russian officials would be in Damascus in a few days.
The UN sought to balance its list “so that no political side could dominate the committee,” de Mistura said, but the Syrian government reportedly wants its supporters to dominate the UN list so its views will prevail in constitutional changes or a new document.
Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, stressed the government’s opposition to a new constitution, telling the Security Council on Wednesday that the mandate of the constitutional committee must be “to renew the current constitution — current constitution — because we do not want a constitutional vacuum, because Syria is not a failed state.”
“We stress that the mandate of the committee is limited to reviewing the articles of the current constitution through a Syria-led and Syria-owned process,” he said.
De Mistura has been trying since February to set up a constitutional committee as a key step toward elections and a political settlement to the more than seven-year Syrian conflict that has killed over 300,000 people. An agreement reached at a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Sept. 17, aimed at averting an expected Syrian military offensive in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib, opened the possibility of progress.
De Mistura told the council “a catastrophe has so far been averted in Idlib” following the Russia-Turkey agreement, and “major strides have been taken in defeating terrorism.”
He echoed Putin and Erdogan, who said the Idlib deal offered “a window for the constitutional committee to be established and the political process to go ahead.”
Eight European Union countries called on Russia, Iran and Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition, to ensure that the Idlib cease-fire is upheld. In a joint statement, they said it “should be an opportunity for the urgent resumption of the UN-led political process in Geneva.”
The EU nations — France, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Britain, Italy, Belgium and Germany — gave “full support” to de Mistura’s efforts to establish an inclusive constitutional committee “without any further delays” that includes at least 30 percent women to lay the groundwork “for free and fair UN-supervised elections” called for by the Security Council.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded to de Mistura’s call for a November meeting and to the EU saying Moscow wants a constitutional committee to be formed “as quickly as possible, but setting artificial deadlines in this case would be counterproductive.”
“There has to be agreement of all the parties and that takes time,” Nebenzia said.
Syria’s Ja’afari not only reiterated the government’s new conditions for establishing the committee but told the council that Idlib, “just like any region in Syria, will return very soon to the sovereignty of the Syrian state.” He didn’t elaborate, but several Security Council nations worried aloud that a government offensive could still take place.
Ja’afari also warned that in order to achieve durable peace, “all illegal foreign forces must leave Syria, including Turkish, American, British, French and Israeli forces.”
De Mistura was asked about his repeated statements that there can be no military solution in Syria despite the government’s success in recapturing most territory in the country.
“What matters is winning the peace,” de Mistura replied. “And therefore it is so important to make sure that … the political process takes place. The alternative will be territorial gains but no sustainable peace. That is what you have to look at.”
He said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked him to report to the Security Council in November “whether the UN is in a position or not to convene a credible and balanced constitutional committee.”
That briefing, de Mistura said, “will be the most important one, certainly, of my mission.”