UN envoy talks new constitution with Syria FM

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Outgoing UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met with Syria’s top diplomat in Damascus on Wednesday, the UN and state media said, to try to make progress on a post-war constitution.

De Mistura announced last week he would step down at the end of November, but said he would first travel to the Syrian capital to seek the government’s approval of a UN-backed constitutional committee.

The Italian-Swedish diplomat met Foreign Minister Walid Muallem but without making any apparent progress.

“We had a very frank and very intense exchange of opinions concerning the constitutional committee and the political process in general,” de Mistura said after the meeting.

He described the meeting as “long” but did not provide any information on progress made or whether he was staying on in Damascus.

State news agency SANA said de Mistura and Muallem discussed the envoy’s efforts to “activate the political process and form a committee to discuss the constitution”.

Muallem stressed that creating a new constitution must be a Syrian-led process and shunned “any foreign interference”.

“This entire process must be under Syrian leadership and ownership. The constitution, and everything related to it, is purely a matter of sovereignty that will be decided by the Syrian people itself without any foreign interference,” he told de Mistura, according to SANA.

The envoy travelled to Damascus at the invitation of Syrian authorities and would stay for a “couple of days”, according to the United Nations, which did not say whether he would also meet President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule but quickly evolved into a brutal war that has killed more than 360,000 people.

UN-led efforts at halting the violence have brought little respite and have been overshadowed by a competing diplomatic track led by regime allies Russia and Iran and rebel backer Turkey.

Earlier this year, Moscow invited representatives of Syria’s government and opposition to the Russian resort town of Sochi and proposed creating a committee to revise the constitution.

De Mistura had hoped the committee would be ready before the fall, but agreeing on its makeup has taken longer than expected.

The committee is expected to include 150 members: 50 chosen by Damascus, 50 by the opposition and the final 50 by de Mistura.

He has said the Syrian government is objecting to the UN’s share, which includes civil society representatives, religious and tribal leaders, experts and women.

The regime has also insisted the body would simply “discuss” the current constitution while opposition groups seek deeper changes.

The UN itself has referred to “drafting constitutional reform”.

At 71, de Mistura is the UN’s third envoy on the Syrian crisis, and its longest-serving with four years under his belt.

He said he was leaving the post for “purely personal reasons”, wanting to spend more time with family.

His successor has not yet been named.