September 23, 2019 / 4:31 PM / a month ago

Syria cautions against 'foreign intervention' in constitution body

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria said on Monday the work of any new constitutional committee should be free of foreign intervention, suggesting Damascus remains insistent that a long-awaited step in a stalled peace process should respect its sovereignty.

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen meets with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on September 23, 2019. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.

Syria underscored its long held position as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced in New York that agreement had been reached on the committee’s composition. Guterres added that the body would be convened in coming weeks.

U.N. officials say formation of a constitutional committee is key to political reforms and new elections meant to unify Syria and end a war which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of the pre-war 22 million population.

A congress convened by Russia, a leading ally of President Bashar al-Assad, last year tasked the U.N. envoy for Syria with forming a committee to draft a new constitution, after many rounds of talks to end the war had failed.

Syrian Foreign Minster Walid al-Moualem said after meeting Pedersen in Damascus on Monday that they had discussed the need to work on a clear mechanism for the operation and role of the constitutional committee away from “any foreign intervention”, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

It was not immediately clear from the SANA report whether or not Moualem was reacting to the announcement by Guterres.

Pedersen in recent months has stepped up efforts to put the final touches to the committee’s formation.

He has held talks in Moscow and Western capitals, consulted Iranian and Turkish officials, and met Syrian opposition chief negotiator Nasr Hariri earlier this month. He said would head to New York to brief the Security Council about his efforts.

“Today I have concluded another round of very successful discussions ... we addressed all outstanding issues related to the constitutional committee,” Pedersen told reporters after meeting Moualem.

Disagreements have focused on the names to be included in the committee and on the scope of the work: Damascus has sought to amend the current constitution, while the opposition has demanded the drafting of a new one from scratch.

Diplomats say unless Moscow steps in forcefully, the pressure on Assad to agree to a political process that would include the Western-backed opposition will diminish.

Assad has scored extensive military gains with the help of Russia and Iran that have allowed him to recover most of the country from rebels and Islamic State militants.

Reporting by Kinda Makieh and Feras Maqdisi in Damascus and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Editing by William Maclean

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