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Syrian constitution talks in Geneva 'sign of hope': UN

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Geneva (AFP)

The UN voiced hope Monday that a meeting this week of a committee tasked with amending Syria's constitution can open the door to a broader political process for the war-ravaged country.

"I do believe that the Constitutional Committee's launch should be a sign of hope for the long-suffering Syrian people," UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen told reporters in Geneva ahead of the committee's first meeting on Wednesday.

The UN last month announced the long-awaited formation of the committee to include 150 members, split evenly between Syria's government, the opposition and Syrian civil society.

Pedersen pointed out that the establishment of the committee "marks the first political agreement between the government of Syria and the opposition."

The UN envoy, who is due to meet with the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran on Tuesday, before the Constitutional Committee launch, also said he enjoyed the "full support and backing on this from a united international community."

"It could be a door-opener to a broader political process," Pedersen said.

Once all 150 meet for a two-day opening ceremony in Geneva starting Wednesday, 45 of them will begin work drafting the document itself.

- Consensus? -

Pedersen said the aim would be to reach consensus on all issues, and where that is not possible, changes would only be made with a 75-percent majority vote in the committee to avoid having any one side "dictate" the process.

Critics meanwhile warn that the high bar could lead to stagnation.

It also remains unclear how long the process could take.

Pedersen said there was no deadline, but stressed that the parties had agreed "to work expeditiously and continuously."

The UN envoy acknowledged that "the Constitutional Committee alone cannot and will not resolve the Syrian conflict."

He insisted that the committee's work needed to "be accompanied by other concrete steps and confidence-building measures, among the Syrians themselves and among Syria and the international community."

He especially called for both sides to release abductees and detainees, in particular women and children.

Constitutional review is a central part of the UN-led effort to end the war in Syria, which has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since erupting in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.

But the mandate of the committee has not been precisely defined -- it remains unclear if it will aim to write a new constitution or adjust the existing one.

Some experts have expressed surprise that President Bashar al-Assad's government agreed to participate in the process.

They question how much the committee is likely to achieve with Russian-backed Assad's grip on power appearing to get stronger and stronger with each passing month.

A ceasefire agreement reached last week basically allows Damascus, its main ally Moscow, and Ankara to carve up the Kurds' now-defunct autonomous region.

Pedersen appealed for all ceasefire agreements to be respected, and also urged a nation-wide ceasefire.

"We do believe that the fighting going on is just another proof of the importance of getting a serious political process under way that can help sort out the problems in all of Syria," he said.

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