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UN suspends Syria constitution talks over coronavirus cases

By AFP

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Syrian MP Ahmad Al-Kuzbari arrives with the Syrian regime's delegation for a meeting of Syria Constitutional Committee at the UN Office in Geneva on August 24th. [Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

Syrian constitutional talks at the UN were put on hold almost as soon as they started on Monday (August 24th) after three delegates tested positive for novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

It had been hoped that the planned week of tentative discussions in Geneva -- between representatives of the Syrian regime, opposition and civil society -- could help pave the way towards a broader political process.

But after a nine-month hiatus, in part due to the coronavirus crisis, the talks on amending the country's constitution were put on ice.

The discussions, between 15 delegates from each of the three groups, were being moderated by UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen.

Pedersen's office received confirmation that three members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee "tested positive for COVID-19", it said in a statement.

Immediate measures were taken "consistent with protocols to mitigate any risks, and tracing of anyone who may have been in close contact with affected persons is under way", it said.

The committee members were tested for coronavirus before they travelled to Geneva, and were tested again on arrival, it said.

The delegates arrived at the UN in Geneva on Monday morning wearing face-masks, and physical distancing measures were in place in the meeting room.

"Following a constructive first meeting, the third session of the Constitutional Committee is currently on hold," Pedersen's office said.

It did not specify at which point the trio had tested positive, or which delegations they belonged to.

'Door-opener'

Pedersen said last week he saw the meeting as "an important step in the right direction", and hoped it could serve as "a door-opener to a broader political process".

The full constitutional review committee is made up of 150 delegates divided equally into government, opposition and civil society groups.

But only 15 members from each of those groups were taking part in this week's small-scale meeting.

The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later. A second round of talks, planned for late November, never got going after disagreement on the agenda.

Since then they have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN has been striving to nurture a political resolution to Syria's war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.

Political transition

Constitutional review is a central part of the UN's peace plan for Syria, which was defined by Security Council resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015.

Only Syrians are involved in the process, but representatives from a range of countries involved in the conflict, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US, were expected in Geneva this week.

US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey on Monday said the meeting had "encouraged" Washington.

He suggested that a range of pressures on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad over the past nine months, including fresh US sanctions, military setbacks and deep economic crises, could push it to shift strategies.

He said the US was eager "to maintain pressure until the Syrian government and its partners realise that they are not going to achieve a military victory".

"The only solution is... political process leading to a political transition," he said.

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