United Nations-backed talks on a new constitution for Syria resumed in Geneva on Thursday after Swiss health authorities gave the green light despite four delegates testing positive for Covid-19.
The discussions, aimed at rewriting the war-torn country’s constitution, were put on hold almost as soon as they started on Monday when the test results came through.
UN envoy Geir Pedersen, who is moderating the tentative talks between representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society, has voiced hope they could pave the way towards a broader political process.
His office said in a statement that “following additional testing and further medical and expert advice regarding four earlier positive tests for Covid-19”, Swiss authorities had determined the meeting could go ahead at the UN Palais des Nations. They resumed at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT).
The committee members — 15 each from the government, the opposition and from civil society — were tested for the new coronavirus before they travelled to Geneva, and were tested again on arrival in the Swiss city.
The positive second tests were found among delegates who arrived from Damascus, opposition negotiations leader Hadi al-Bahra told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday.
One opposition delegate, one from civil society and two representing the government, tested positive, he said.
Pedersen said further testing in recent days “indicates that the earlier positive cases do not pose any risk,” adding though that “out of an abundance of caution”, the talks would proceed at the UN “only with those who have tested negative.”
He stressed strict precautions would be followed during the talks.
The discussions had been scheduled to wrap up Friday, but Pedersen said the plan now was to extend the talks into Saturday.
He said committee delegates seemed eager to resume dialogue as “a signal of the importance of this process.”
He hailed a “constructive” first meeting on Monday, and said delegates appeared keen to have “substantive discussions” for the remainder of the week.
The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later.
Disagreement on the agenda prevented a second round of planned talks from taking place in late November. The pandemic has delayed them ever since.
The United Nations has been striving for more than nine years to nurture a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.
Members of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, tasked with amending their war-torn country’s constitution, met at the UN in Geneva on Monday for the first time since a failed attempt at talks last November.
Delegations from President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society arrived at the United Nations in separate minivans, with all delegates wearing facemasks, to start a week of discussions.
Ahmad Al-Kuzbari, who is heading the government delegation, and Hadi Al-Bahra, leading up the opposition, both waved as they entered the building but delegates did not speak to reporters.
A UN spokeswoman confirmed shortly before noon that the week-long session had begun.
UN special envoy for Syria Gail Pedersen said Sunday he had met with co-chairs of the government and opposition delegations and with civil society representatives over the weekend.
“I am looking forward to a week of substantial discussions on the agenda and moving the process forward,” the Norwegian diplomat said on Twitter.
The full constitutional review committee is made up of 150 delegates divided equally three ways into government, opposition and civil society groups.
But only 15 members from each of those groups were due to take 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 prevented government and opposition negotiators from meeting.
Since then talks have been delayed by the coronavirus crisis.
The UN has been striving for more than nine years to try to help find a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and has displaced more than 11 million.
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.
Pedersen on Friday stressed the urgent need to build confidence between the parties.
He told reporters nobody expected “a miracle or a breakthrough”; rather the meeting is about looking towards identifying areas where progress might be made.
Some 500 worshippers are set to attend Muslim prayers at UNESCO World Heritage site on Friday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has paid a surprise visit to Hagia Sophia just days before the first Muslim prayers are due to be held at the Istanbul landmark since it was reconverted to a mosque last week.
In a quick visit billed as an inspection, Erdogan took stock of the conversion work, the president’s office said on Sunday, providing pictures showing scaffolding inside the building.
Turkey tries journalists accused of revealing The Diyanet, the country’s religious authority, said Christian icons would be curtained off and unlit “through appropriate means during prayer times”.
It was unclear whether Erdogan planned to be among some 500 worshippers set to attend Friday prayers.
Turkey’s top court paved the way for the conversion in a decision to revoke the edifice’s museum status conferred nearly a century ago.
The sixth-century building had been open to all visitors, regardless of their faith, since its inauguration as a museum in 1935.
Earlier this week, the Diyanet said the building would continue to be open to all visitors outside the hours given over to prayer.
The UNESCO World Heritage site was built as a cathedral during the Byzantine empire but converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
It was designated a museum in a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan said last year it had been a "very big mistake" to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum.
The elections, originally scheduled for April, have been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although several lists are running in the polls, real opposition to al-Assad’s Baath Party is absent in the election.
Opposition groups traditionally tolerated by the government are expected to boycott the polls and the Baath Party is guaranteed to monopolise the new parliament as it has done in previous elections.
In the last vote in 2016, the Baath and its allies took 200 of the 250-seat parliament while the remaining posts went to independent candidates.
Observers say the contest lacks credibility with the majority of candidates being either part of al-Assad’s Baath Party or loyal to his regime.
“The majority of Syrians believe the election is only a process controlled by the regime to represent itself as a legitimate authority in Syria,” said Zaki Mehchy, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House and co-founder of the Syrian Centre for Policy Research.
“People know that the majority of MPs are nominated by the Baath party and all of them need to have security approval based on loyalty and not qualifications,” he added.
Karam Shaar, an expert on Syria at the Middle East Institute, said: “The al-Assad regime uses parliamentary elections to reward loyalty. This time around, warlords and militiamen are expected to gain yet more seats for their contributions to the state over the past four years.”
Economic woes More than 7,000 polling stations have been set up across about 70 percent of the country where the al-Assad government maintains control.
Government forces have been pushing to regain control over areas overtaken by opposition and rebel groups since the start of the war.
Al-Assad’s troops regained control over Eastern Ghouta in 2018 and southern parts of Idlib after the launch of a Russian-backed offensive to retake the northwest province in late 2019.
Other parts of Idlib remain as the last rebel-held bastion in the country, while large swaths of land along the Turkey-Syria border house millions of internally displaced Syrians from the war.
Syrians living abroad, including millions of refugees forced to leave their homes because of fighting, will not be taking part in the election.
Citizens casting their ballots in Sunday’s vote are expected to focus on soaring living costs and the country’s dire economic situation.
“As nearly 90 percent of the country plunges into poverty, people are increasingly focusing on meeting their basic needs,” said Shaar.
Syria’s economy has been in freefall over the past few months with the pound losing about 70 percent of its value, making the price of basic commodities now unaffordable to many Syrians.
Still, observers say most Syrians believe the parliament is not the right channel to solve their economic problems.
“The economic situation is choking the average Syrian in both government and rebel areas,” said independent researcher Malak Chabkoun.
She explained a deteriorating economy and US sanctions will be at the forefront of the voting agenda, but people will be casting their ballots for candidates “they were told [by the government] to vote for”.
“The Baath Party candidates have [also] added US sanctions to their platform this time around to garner support and cry victim,” she added, referring to a range of newly-imposed US sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, that target companies, institutions, and individuals doing business with the al-Assad government.
While analysts say the legislation affects the al-Assad government and its local and foreign backers, humanitarian efforts and civilians in Syria, and neighbouring Lebanon, have also been affected by the sanctions.
Lack of international recognition After the vote, the new parliament plans to approve a new constitution, and al-Assad is expected to name a new prime minister. The new parliament will also be expected to approve candidates for the next presidential election.
But experts say the international community will not recognise the vote.
“The international community and political opposition groups will not recognise this parliament as a legitimate one,” said Mehchy.
“A new constitution can be only approved by a new parliament based on a transparent election in which refugees and Syrians outside the country have the right to vote,” he explained, adding the coming parliament will only approve candidates “nominated and approved by the security agencies”.
Al-Assad came to power at the age of 34 in 2000 after nearly 30 years of his father’s rule. He was elected for a third seven-year term in 2014, with the government claiming more than 88 percent of the votes were in his favour.
His time in power has been marred by a bloody civil war that has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions of Syrians displaced inside and outside of the country.
Commenting on al-Assad’s 20 years in power, Chabkoun said: “Bashar has continued the same pattern [as his father’s] of quelling any opposition, disappearing people who speak out against his government, and continuing to control the goods and resources of the country for his family and friends’ own gain.”
According to Freedom House, the Syrian government is considered “one of the world’s most repressive regimes”, which along with “other belligerent forces”, has severely compromised Syrians’ political rights and civil liberties.
According to Mehchy, al-Assad’s rule has been “a catastrophic era, especially the years of conflict since 2011”, which he said the government’s policies during the first 10 years contributed towards as “root causes”.
“These policies neglected the economic and political exclusion that the majority of Syrians were suffering from,” said Mehchy.
…US Airstrikes in Iraq & Syria, killed 25 and injured 51 militants
Iran has warned the US to prepare for ‘consequences’ after the US Militia launched airstrikes against Iranian backed militia group in Iraq and Syria killing 25 people and injuring 51.
The precision airstrikes, targeted five facilities controlled by Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria on Sunday, leading to Iran’s fury filled statement Monday night.
“The US has openly shown its support to terrorism and shown its negligence to the independence and national sovereignty of countries,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mosavi , according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
“It must accept responsibility of the consequences of the illegal attacks,” added Mosavi.
Hezbollah, another militia group based in Lebanon that receives it’s funding from Iran, called the attack “a blatant violation on the sovereignty, security and stability of Iraq and the Iraqi people,” in a statement released on the group’s al-Manar TV Monday.
“This aggression reaffirms that the American administration wants to strike the underlying potential powers of the Iraqi people which is capable to confront ISIS and the powers of extremism and crime,” the statement read.
“The American administration reveals its true face as an enemy to Iraq and the interest of the Iraqi people and their aspiration for freedom, true sovereignty and a secured future,” it continued.
Meanwhile the Pentagon has released a statement confirming the attacks .
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman described the strikes as “precision defensive strikes” that “will degrade” the group’s ability to conduct future attacks against coalition forces.
The military strikes represent the first significant US military response in retaliation for attacks by the Iran backed militia groups against US Forces or interests in the region in a long while.
Military analysts believe a proxy war could start out now between the US and Iran following the latest
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, November 29th said that Emmanuel Macron’s warning that NATO was dying reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead”.
Erdogan was speaking days ahead of a summit of the military alliance, which Macron said was experiencing “brain death” because of American unpredictability under President Donald Trump and strained ties with Turkey.
The Turkish and French presidents, who have traded criticism over Ankara’s cross-border offensive in northeast Syria, will be among NATO leaders meeting at a summit of the transatlantic alliance in Britain on December 4.
“I’m addressing Mr Macron from Turkey and I will say it at NATO: You should check whether you are brain dead first,” Erdogan said.
Macron said in an interview three weeks ago there was a lack of strategic coordination between European allies on the one hand and the United States and Turkey, on the other. He has also decried NATO’s inability to react to what he called Turkey’s “crazy” offensive into northern Syria.
Turkey is refusing to back a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland unless it gets more political support for its fight against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria.
Macron’s remarks drew strong reaction from European peers who believe Europe still needs to rely heavily on NATO, but he said on Thursday his remarks had been a useful wake-up call and he would not apologize for saying them.