Erdogan, Rohani talks to reflect differences on Syria

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rohani are scheduled to chair the fifth meeting of their countries’ joint High-Level Cooperation Council in the Turkish capital on December 20.
Wednesday 19/12/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) talk after a family photo at the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit at Istanbul Congress Center (ICC) on April 14,2016 in Istanbul. (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) talk after a family photo at the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit at Istanbul Congress Center (ICC) on April 14,2016 in Istanbul. (AFP)

The leaders of Turkey and Iran are meeting in Ankara December 20 to talk about a post-war solution for Syria, following the failure of efforts to establish a body tasked with writing a new constitution for the war-torn country.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rohani are scheduled to chair the fifth meeting of their countries’ joint High-Level Cooperation Council in the Turkish capital on December 20, Erdogan’s office said in a statement. The session is set to discuss bilateral matters as well as “regional and international developments,” the statement said. Rohani was expected to arrive in Turkey on December 19.

Turkey and Iran are partners with Russia in the so-called Astana process to end the war in Syria. Since the start of the year, the trio has been working to put together a constitutional committee made up of 150 people to reform Syria’s constitution, a step that could lead to new elections.

A meeting by the three countries’ foreign ministers at the UN offices in Geneva on December 18 ended with a commitment to convene the committee early in 2019 but without agreement about the makeup of the panel.

The ongoing row over who should take part in the constitutional committee reflects a deep lack of trust between the Syrian government and the opposition as well as conflicting interests of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara in Syria. While Russia and Tehran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has been a sponsor of various opposition groups.

A third of the committee members are to represent the Damascus government, another third is to be made up by opposition officials, with the rest coming from civil society groups. But despite months of negotiations, there is no agreement about the committee members. Officials say disagreement about the makeup of the civil society delegation, proposed by the UN, is blocking an overall consensus.

The question of what the body should do once it is formed also remains unanswered. The opposition, which rejects a future political role for Assad, says the country needs a completely new basic law after almost eight years of war that has killed about 500,000 people and has driven millions from their homes. But the government argues that the committee should take the existing constitution as a base, a position that could see Assad remaining in power.

A joint statement read out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after meeting his Turkish and Iranian counterparts Mevlut Cavusoglu and Javad Zarif and visiting outgoing UN Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva said the committee should be guided “by a sense of compromise and constructive engagement.”

The foreign ministers of the three nations had hoped to seal their joint proposal on a committee and win UN blessing for it. But Cavusoglu confirmed there was still work to be done. He said Ankara, Moscow and Tehran would step up their efforts to see the commission formed “as soon as possible,” according to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency.

The Turkish minister added that the three countries and the UN were working on the names that civil society had suggested for the commission. An agreement on the commission’s procedural rules was also close. “We foresee the first meeting of this commission in the first month of next year,” Cavusoglu said according to Anadolu.

But the Syrian government is accusing the West and Turkey of blocking an agreement on the committee. The state news agency SANA quoted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem as saying shortly before the Geneva meeting that it was too early to talk about the committee starting its work, “and that the delay in forming it is caused by certain Western states’ attempts to interfere in this matter, as well as obstacles put by Turkey.”

De Mistura also voiced scepticism. “I believe there is an extra mile to go in the marathon effort to ensure the necessary package for a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee and for including a balanced chairing arrangement and drafting body and voting threshold  to be established under UN auspices in Geneva,” he said in Geneva.

The outgoing Syria envoy is to brief the UN Security Council in New York on December 20 before ending his mission after more than four years. Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen is to take over as the UN’s Syria envoy on January 7.