Russia-backed Syria peace talks begin in Geneva

Representatives from the Syrian opposition and government came together for the first time since the beginning of the conflict in 2011 for talks aimed at drafting a new constitution for the war-torn country.

The Syrian Constitutional Committee met in Geneva for the first time on Wednesday to hold the talks, overseen by United Nations special envoy Geir Pedersen.

While the talks have UN backing, they are a clear sign of Russia’s key role in the conflict, in which Moscow’s ally Syrian President Bashar Assad has quashed much of the opposition and which Washington backed away with a troop withdrawal this month.

It was Moscow’s initiative through a process also backed by Turkey and Iran that brought the latest round of talks to fruition.

Pedersen had asked foreign countries to keep their distance from the talks and allow it to be a “Syrian owned, Syrian led process,” but the Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers were all in Geneva for the beginning of talks.

The ministers released a joint statement insisting on the “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria,” Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported.

In another sign of Moscow’s strong influence on proceedings, the Syrian government and some of the opposition delegation arrived in Geneva on a Russian-chartered plane, the Guardian said.

The committee, which includes 50 nominees from the Syrian government and 50 from the opposition, faced consistent delays since the two sides could not agree on choices for the final 50 members, representing civil society.

Pedersen called for “patience, persistence and readiness to compromise,” the BBC said.

But observers have said it is unlikely that Assad, whose army has recaptured much of Syria with Russian and Iranian support, will be willing to make many concessions to the opposition.

It still remains unclear whether the committee will draft a new constitution from scratch or revise the existing constitution, which was revised in 2012 to include an article stating that the political system should be democratic.

Assad won the last elections, a 2014 poll widely condemned as illegitimate, with nearly 89 percent of the vote.