One-hundred-and-fifty delegates representing Syria's government, opposition and various sectors of civil society met in the Swiss city of Geneva on Wednesday to try to draft a new constitution.
The UN says the talks will be "Syrian-owned and Syrian-led", and could pave the way for reforms and elections. It suggests they might, eventually, lead to peace negotiations.
The participants – 50 each from the government, the opposition, and civil society – gathered at the Palais des Nations for an opening ceremony. Almost 30% of the representatives are women.
Sitting beside the committee's two co-chairmen, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen called for patience, persistence, and readiness to compromise.
Pedersen said he knew it was "not easy for all of you to be together in this room", but that it would be a powerful sign of hope for Syrians everywhere.
Ahmad Kuzbari, the government's co-chairman, appeared less conciliatory, insisting that the "battle to protect the state" had been "legitimate", and praising the "sacrifices and heroic deeds" of the Syrian Army.
"The occupation of our territory, the spoliation of our resources, the continuing imposing of unilateral sanctions threaten the entire political process as well as being in contradiction with international legitimacy," he added.
Opposition co-chair Hadi al-Bahra said 65% 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."
Syria's eight-year war has claimed more than 370,000 lives and created 5.6 million refugees.
Fighting is still raging in parts of the country, particularly the northwest – where government forces loyal are bombarding the last stronghold of terrorists – and the northeast – where Turkey recently carried out an operation to push back Kurdish militiamen from its border.
Last month's deal to establish the constitutional committee was the first political agreement between the government and opposition since the war began in 2011.
Initial face-to-face discussions will start on Thursday, after which a 45-strong body – 15 from each bloc – will start work on drafting a new constitution that should lead to UN-supervised elections.
Decisions will be taken by consensus where possible, and otherwise by a majority of 75%, so that no one bloc can dictate the outcomes.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday that he welcomed the "unique opportunity" provided by the committee and said he expected participants to work together in faith towards a solution in line with Security Council resolution 2254 that meets the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians.
But he added: "The constitutional committee's launch and work must be accompanied by concrete actions to build trust and confidence."
"Meaningful engagement in the constitutional committee, accompanied by a cessation of hostilities across the country, will provide my special envoy with an environment he requires to effectively discharge his mandate to facilitate a broader political process."
Resolution 2254, adopted in 2015, endorsed a road map for a peace process in Syria that would establish "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance".
Committee must work independently
Meanwhile, Iran, Russia and Turkey stressed that Syria’s constitutional committee must work independently and far from any foreign interference in order to draw maximum support from all walks of the Syrian nation.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif together with his Russian and Turkish counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a joint communiqué at the end of their meeting with Pedersen in Geneva on Tuesday, stated that the three guarantor states of the Syria peace process – Iran, Russia, and Turkey – are committed to guarantee the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, emphasizing that these principles should be respected by all parties.
They also reiterated their respective countries’ strong resolve to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and to confront the separatist agenda on the Syrian land.
The three top diplomats then welcomed the formation of Syria’s constitutional committee and its inception, lauding the effective assistance of the three guarantor states of Syria peace process, implementation of decisions taken at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on January 30, 2018 and Pedersen’s efforts in this regard.
They further highlighted that the start of Syria’s constitutional committee attests to the fact that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict, reaffirms their commitment to continue the ongoing Syrian-Syrian political process and facilitate the United Nations efforts in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The foreign ministers went on to say that the work of the committee should be conducted with a sense of compromise and constructive engagement, and without foreign interference as well as imposition of external timetables in order to receive the widest possible support from the Syrian people.
Blasting US plan
On Tuesday, Iran and Russia echoed the Syrian stance, lashing out at US President Donald Trump's plans to keep some American troops in Syria to seize control of the country’s oil reserves.
“Well, it seems that the United States is staying to protect the oil,” Zarif said ironically. “At least President Trump is honest to say what the United States intends to do,” he added to laughter.
Zarif also stressed that the legal presence of both Iran and Russia in Syria will continue until the Syrian government and nation need them.
“Iran and Russia are there on the invitation of the Syrian government, and we intend to stay there as long as the Syrian government and Syrian people want us to be there,” he said.
Lavrov, in turn, said that the return of American forces to Syria, after their transfer to Iraq, was “under the pretext of protecting oil deposits” from the Daesh terror group.
He further reminded the US of the illegality of any exploitation of a sovereign country’s natural resources.
“The essence is that any illegal exploitation of natural resources of a sovereign state without its consent is illegal and that is the view that we share,” he said. “Our US colleagues are aware of our position and we will defend that position.”
Separately, Fahrettin Altun, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, stressed Syria’s right to its own oil reserves, saying, “Syria’s natural resources belong to Syrians.”
“Oil or other types of revenue should be used for reconstruction efforts including local infrastructure, support for civilians, IDPs (internally displaced persons), and refugees. Just as Syrians should be able to determine their own political future, they should also be allowed to decide how the resources of their own land should be spent,” he tweeted.
On Sunday, Trump announced that US troops would remain in Syria to “secure” oil reserves and even put up “a hell of a fight” against any force that tried to take them.
He also expressed interest in making a deal with ExxonMobil or another energy company to tap Syrian oil reserves.
The following day, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper threatened that American forces deployed around Syrian oil fields will use “military force” against any party that may seek to challenge Washington’s control of those sites, even if it is Syrian government forces or their Russian allies.
The Russian Defense Ministry earlier blasted Washington’s oil field operation as “state-sponsored banditry,” saying the US was stationing its troops in northeastern Syria to pave the way for smugglers to pillage Syrian resources.
The ministry published aerial images on Saturday which it said show crude oil being smuggled out of Syria “under the strong protection of the US.”
BBC, Reuters and Press TV contributed to this story.