The opponents in Syria's civil war sat down at the same table for the first time after eight and a half years of bloodshed to work on a new constitution, as the opposition side demanded justice while the Assad regime "condemned the occupation of its land."
At noon Wednesday, 150 delegates including 50 each from the regime of Bashar Assad, opposition and civil society launched the U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva.
Russia and Iran, the allies of the regime, and Turkey, which backs the opposition, see the Constitutional Committee as a chance to build trust and to move towards a broader political process that could end the conflict.
Opposition co-chair Hadi al-Bahra said 65 percent of Syria had been damaged, adding: "It is time for us to believe victory in Syria is achieving justice and peace not winning the war."Government and opposition delegations sat stony-faced opposite each other in a gilded hall at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, convened by U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen with the backing of major powers.
The regime, the Syrian opposition and civil society groups each have 50 members serving on the panel. There is no representation from the PKK's Syrian offshoot the People's Protection Units (YPG).
A sub-group of 45 is charged with drafting a new constitution or revising the 2012 one."This is a historic moment," Pedersen said, while recognizing that it was not easy for the delegations to sit in the same room and the "road ahead will not be easy."
"But the fact you are here sitting face-to-face ready to start a dialogue and negotiations is I believe a powerful sign of Syrians everywhere, both inside and outside the country."The co-chairs did not shake hands at the end of the 45-minute ceremony.
The 150-member committee is designed to pave the way for political reform and free and fair U.N.-supervised elections in the country, where the war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to flee since March 2011.
"We urge the sides to reach an agreement," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a press conference Tuesday evening at the Swiss U.N. seat, after meeting his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, as well as U.N. Syria envoy Geir Pedersen.
While Iran's top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif pledged that the three guarantor powers would not intervene in the process, his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said he was optimistic but aware that the talks would be difficult.
The three countries will not take part in the intra-Syrian negotiations. Several previous rounds of U.N.-mediated Syria talks have yielded no outcome, as the regime and opposition failed to engage in substantive talks.
Pedersen cautioned this week that "the Constitutional Committee alone cannot and will not resolve the Syrian conflict." In addition to the talks, confidence must be built on the ground, especially by finding solutions for the thousands of prisoners of war and abductees, the Norwegian diplomat said.
Constitutional review is a central part of the U.N.-led effort to end the war in Syria, which has killed more than 370,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes since 2011.
Security Council resolution 2254, which defines the U.N. push for peace, also calls for U.N.-supervised elections in Syria.
Pedersen said the aim would be to reach a consensus on all issues. Where that was not possible, changes would only be made with a 75% majority vote in the committee to avoid having any one side dictate the process.
But the prospects of consensus appears remote.
While the opposition has called for an entirely new text, Assad's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem argued that amending even one article of the current charter would amount to a "new constitution."
The regime has also insisted that the process have no deadline.