US wants to ‘pull the plug’ on Syria’s Astana talks

Jeffrey brushed aside suggestions that his assessment of negotiations concerning Syria is marginal because the United States is playing a secondary role to Russia and Turkey.
Sunday 09/12/2018
No viable alternatives. James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, during a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, last September. (Reuters)
No viable alternatives. James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, during a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, last September. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - A top US diplomat said the international community should prepare to abandon negotiations that have tried — and failed — to write a new constitution for Syria that would end the country’s nearly 8-year-old civil war.

James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, said countries should “pull the plug on Astana” if no progress is made by mid-December, when the UN Security Council is to receive a final report from UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who is leading efforts to form a constitutional committee.

Jeffrey’s comments were made four days after a conference in Astana, Kazakhstan failed to initiate talks about a new constitution for Syria.

The Astana conference, November 28-29, was the 11th meeting under the joint leadership of Russia, Turkey and Iran. It failed to break a stalemate that has persisted on the make-up of a constitutional committee for Syria.

“They tried and they failed,” Jeffrey said. Moscow, Ankara and Tehran “did not take any significant action on the constitutional committee. Rather, they stated once again that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.”

“If they are still failing by the 14th [of December],” Jeffrey added, “let’s pull the plug on Astana.” December 14 is when de Mistura is to issue a final report on his efforts to initiate talks about a new constitution.

“That will be the key point where we see whether we are going to have the political process moving forward under the UN, facilitated perhaps by the Astana guarantors putting pressure on Damascus or whether we’re going to be in another stalemate,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey’s pessimism was criticised by Turkey and Russia, which called it unprofessional and unhelpful. “These statements, mildly speaking, are unconstructive,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, adding that they only serve to help those who oppose peaceful settlement. “The political settlement process [in Syria] is not easy and our experts are dealing with this on an everyday basis with their colleagues.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu called Jeffrey’s “pull the plug” comment “a very unfortunate statement. I don’t think that it was his own thought.”

Participants at a Russia-sponsored conference last January decided to create a Syrian constitutional committee of 50 representatives of the government, 50 opposition supporters and 50 envoys from civil society to write a new constitution. Repeated attempts have failed to forge a consensus about who should be allowed to sit on the panel.

De Mistura, who will leave his post December 31, issued a grim statement after the latest Astana talks collapsed. “There was no tangible progress in overcoming the 10-month stalemate on the composition of the constitutional committee,” he said. De Mistura called the meeting “a missed opportunity to accelerate the establishment of a credible, balanced and inclusive” constitutional committee led by Syria and facilitated by the United Nations.

Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen is to take over from de Mistura in January. At that point, “we’ll all have to re-examine where we’re going on this extremely important, extremely dangerous issue,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey brushed aside suggestions that his assessment of negotiations concerning Syria is marginal because the United States is playing a secondary role to Russia and Turkey. The United States has a limited military and diplomatic presence in Syria.

“We think we’re playing a primary role,” Jeffrey said. “Ask any of the other participants in this process the role of the United States overall in Syria. I think they’ll say it’s a very, very active role with many aspects.”

Jeffrey and another US diplomat, Joel Rayburn, are to be in Turkey and Jordan through December 14 meeting with senior officials to discuss “the promotion of stability and security in Syria” and to “continue progress on issues of mutual interest regarding the ongoing crisis in Syria,” the US State Department said.

In Jordan, the two US officials were to meet with senior officials to “emphasise the importance of maintaining pressure on the Syrian regime” and to encourage “all possible efforts” to advance UN-sponsored talks.

10