UN-backed talks on a new constitution for Syria resumed in Geneva on Thursday after Swiss health authorities gave the green light despite four delegates testing positive for Covid-19.
The discussions, aimed at rewriting the war-torn country’s constitution, were put on hold almost as soon as they started on Monday when the test results came through.
UN envoy Geir Pedersen, who is moderating the tentative talks between representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society, has voiced hope they could pave the way towards a broader political process.
His office said in a statement that “following additional testing and further medical and expert advice regarding four earlier positive tests for Covid-19”, Swiss authorities had determined the meeting could go ahead at the UN Palais des Nations. They resumed at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT).
The committee members — 15 each from the government, the opposition and from civil society — were tested for the new coronavirus before they travelled to Geneva, and were tested again on arrival in the Swiss city.
The positive second tests were found among delegates who arrived from Damascus, opposition negotiations leader Hadi al-Bahra told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday.
One opposition delegate, one from civil society and two representing the government, tested positive, he said.
Pedersen said further testing in recent days “indicates that the earlier positive cases do not pose any risk,” adding though that “out of an abundance of caution”, the talks would proceed at the UN “only with those who have tested negative.”
He stressed strict precautions would be followed during the talks.
The discussions had been scheduled to wrap up Friday, but Pedersen said the plan now was to extend the talks into Saturday.
He said committee delegates seemed eager to resume dialogue as “a signal of the importance of this process.”
He hailed a “constructive” first meeting on Monday, and said delegates appeared keen to have “substantive discussions” for the remainder of the week.
The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later.
Disagreement on the agenda prevented a second round of planned talks from taking place in late November. The pandemic has delayed them ever since.
The United Nations has been striving for more than nine years to nurture a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.
Members of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, tasked with amending their war-torn country’s constitution, met at the UN in Geneva on Monday for the first time since a failed attempt at talks last November.
Delegations from President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society arrived at the United Nations in separate minivans, with all delegates wearing facemasks, to start a week of discussions.
Ahmad Al-Kuzbari, who is heading the government delegation, and Hadi Al-Bahra, leading up the opposition, both waved as they entered the building but delegates did not speak to reporters.
A UN spokeswoman confirmed shortly before noon that the week-long session had begun.
UN special envoy for Syria Gail Pedersen said Sunday he had met with co-chairs of the government and opposition delegations and with civil society representatives over the weekend.
“I am looking forward to a week of substantial discussions on the agenda and moving the process forward,” the Norwegian diplomat said on Twitter.
The full constitutional review committee is made up of 150 delegates divided equally three ways into government, opposition and civil society groups.
But only 15 members from each of those groups were due to take part in this week’s small-scale meeting.
The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later.
A second round of talks, planned for late November, never got going after disagreement on the agenda prevented government and opposition negotiators from meeting.
Since then talks have been delayed by the coronavirus crisis.
The UN has been striving for more than nine years to try to help find a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and has displaced more than 11 million.
Constitutional review is a central part of the UN’s peace plan for Syria, which was defined by Security Council resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015.
Pedersen on Friday stressed the urgent need to build confidence between the parties.
He told reporters nobody expected “a miracle or a breakthrough”; rather the meeting is about looking towards identifying areas where progress might be made.
Syria’s central bank devalued the Syrian pound on Wednesday giving in to weeks of depreciation on the black market as new US sanctions took effect.
The central bank raised the official exchange rate from 704 to 1,256 Syrian pounds to the dollar, in a statement published on its social media pages.
The previous rate had been in force since March.
Earlier this month, the war-torn country’s currency hit a record low on the black market of around 3,000 pounds to the dollar, sparking rare protests, before appreciating slightly after an apparent injection of dollars.
On Wednesday, the rate on the parallel market stood at around 2,600 to 2,800 pounds to the dollar, traders told AFP.
The devaluation comes as the United States prepares to implement new sanctions this week under the Caesar Act, targeting foreigners doing business with the Damascus government, as well as reconstruction of the country.
Zaki Mehchy, a senior consulting fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said the central bank was trying to minimise the gap between the official and black market rates.
“It is trying to encourage people to use the official channel instead of the black market,” he said.
But the pound would probably continue its slide, punctuated by short periods of appreciation, he said.
Syria’s economy has been battered by nine years of war, and is now reeling from the knock-on effects of a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon that has stemmed the flow of dollars into government-held areas.
Analysts have said the recent lows on the black market are likely due to worries ahead of the introduction of new US sanctions, and the sudden fall from grace of tycoon and cousin of the president, Rami Makhlouf, which has set other top businessmen on edge.
The Damascus government has long blamed the country’s economic crisis on international sanctions.
Last week, President Bashar al-Assad sacked his prime minister of four years after criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Before the conflict, the exchange rate stood at 47 Syrian pounds to the dollar.
Damascus in early March paused a military offensive on rebels and jihadists in Syria’s northwest, after a ceasefire brokered by regime ally Russia came into effect.
The Moscow-backed campaign had displaced nearly a million people in the region since December, piling pressure on informal settlements already brimming with families forced to flee previous bouts of violence.
The fate of the displaced has been a key concern of aid groups amid an outbreak in the country of the novel coronavirus, which has killed two and infected eight others.
The United Nations has appealed for a nation-wide ceasefire to tackle the novel coronavirus threat, while aid groups have warned of a health catastrophe if the pandemic hits overcrowded displacement camps or crammed regime prisons.
The Syrian government has announced the first case of the novel coronavirus in the war-torn country, days after starting measures to stem the spread of the pandemic.
Health minister Nizar Yaziji late Sunday said authorities had recorded “a first case of the coronavirus in Syria in a person coming from abroad,” without specifying the country.
“The appropriate measures have been taken to deal with” the female patient aged around 20, state news agency SANA reported him as telling journalists.
The Damascus authorities have over the past week increasingly taken measures to prevent a spread of the deadly virus.
They have ordered schools, universities, restaurants, cinemas and events halls to close, and suspended prayer gatherings.
They have also stopped work or downsized staff in government institutions, and transport between provinces is to come to a halt from Tuesday.
Last week, Damascus postponed parliamentary polls scheduled for next month until further notice.
After nine years of a war that has killed more than 380,000 people and ravaged the country’s infrastructure, fears are high that a COVID-19 outbreak in the country would have devastating consequences, especially in areas outside regime control.
These include the last major rebel bastion of Idlib in the northwest, and the Kurdish-held northeast.
A World Health Organization spokesman earlier this month warned that Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond” to what is now a pandemic.
Turkey on Sunday announced the launch of an offensive against the Moscow-backed Syrian regime, as Ankara put pressure on Europe by opening its border for migrants to seek passage to the continent via Greece.
Tensions have soared between Russia and Turkey — who back opposing forces in Syria’s civil war — after an airstrike blamed on Damascus killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week.
Turkish and Syrian military exchanged fire over the weekend with Syrian forces targetting a Turkish drone and artillery and Ankara claiming to have shot down two Syrian fighter jets.
The situation in rebel-held Idlib was already volatile as the regime supported by Russian air power pressed an assault on the region, killing hundreds of civilians, in a bid to retake the last opposition enclave in an eight-year civil war.
The confrontation between the Russia-backed Syrian military and NATO-member Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels, has prompted worries over a wider conflict and a migrant crisis in Europe similar to 2015.
Migrant numbers have already surged along the rugged frontier after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to pressure the EU over Syria, said the country had “opened the doors” to Europe.
Greece said Sunday it has blocked nearly 10,000 migrants at its border with Turkey.
As migrant boats continued to land on Greek islands, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced the first confirmation of a full and continuing operation against Damascus.
“Following the heinous attack on February 27 in Idlib, operation ‘Spring Shield’ successfully continues,” Akar said in a video shared by the defence ministry.
Turkish forces hit Syrian regime positions after Erdogan warned Damascus would “pay a price” for the air strike that killed 34 Turkish troops inside Idlib on Thursday.
Under a 2018 deal with Russia meant to bring calm to Idlib, Turkey has 12 observation posts in Syria — but several have come under fire from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Turkey on Friday said it retaliated by hitting more than 200 Syria regime targets in drone and artillery bombardments.
Turkey wants the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where Islamist fighters backed by Ankara pose the biggest obstacle to Damascus seizing back control over all of Syria.
Planes shot down
Syrian state media reported that Turkey targeted two regime planes over Idlib.
SANA also reported the regime shot down a Turkish drone near the town of Saraqeb, publishing footage of an aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames. That could not be immediately confirmed.
The Turkish defence ministry confirmed one of its drones was shot down and two other anti-aircraft systems had been destroyed.
It added two SU-24 regime planes that were attacking Turkish aircraft were downed.
The latest violence has raised tensions between Moscow and Ankara, but Ankara insists Turkey did not wish to clash with Russia.
Turkish media reported on Sunday that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Moscow on March 5.
Earlier on Sunday, Istanbul police detained the editor-in-chief of the Turkish version of Russia’s Sputnik website as its offices were being searched in Istanbul.
Three of its journalists were also taken to a courthouse in Ankara for questioning, likely related to a Sputnik article in English claiming Turkey’s Hatay province was “stolen” from Syria. Colonial power France ceded the southern region to Turkey in 1938.
The news website later said they had been released.
The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke by telephone on Sunday, Moscow’s ministry said, to discuss preparations for the meeting between Putin and Erdogan, and the safety of the Sputnik journalists.
Some 13,000 migrants have amassed at the Turkey-Greece border, including families with young children who spent the night in the cold, the International Organization for Migration said.
An estimated additional 2,000 migrants arrived at the Pazarkule border gate Sunday, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, according to an AFP reporter.
But as the crowds rushed to enter Europe, Greek police and soldiers blocked 9,972 “illegal entrances” from entering the northeastern Evros region in the past 24 hours, a Greek government source said.
The UN refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch called for “calm and easing of tensions on the border,” as he urged countries to “refrain from the use of excessive and disproportionate force”.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday said the EU was watching “with concern” and stood ready to deploy its Frontex border guard agency.
The developments recalled events in 2015 when over a million migrants fled to Europe, mainly via Greece in what became the continent’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The EU’s commissioner for migration, Margaritis Schinas, tweeted Sunday he had requested an extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers to discuss the situation.
Erdogan said Turkey, home to some 3.6 million refugees, did not plan to close the borders because “the (EU) should keep its promises”.
He was referring to the 2016 deal with Brussels to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for billions of euros.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called for Turkey and Russia to implement a lasting ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province in conversations with the two countries’ leaders, the Elysee said.
Moscow-backed Syrian forces have since December led a military offensive against the final major rebel stronghold, where Ankara supports some rebel groups.
Macron expressed his “very strong concern about the unfolding humanitarian crisis” to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, according to a statement released on Saturday.
He also warned of the risk terrorist groups would spread “because of the military offensive of the Syrian regime and its allies,” adding it undermined the 2018 Idlib agreement between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarised zone in the northwestern province.
A Turkish official said Saturday that Turkey destroyed a chemical warfare facility after dozens of its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in the last-rebel enclave of Idlib province.
The Turkish army destroyed overnight “a chemical warfare facility, located some 13 kilometres south of Aleppo, along with a large number of other regime targets,” the senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib region on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years.
The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.
As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — backed by Russian air power — have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the region.
On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a bid to scale down the tensions.
Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, according to the Kremlin.
Depite being on opposite ends, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution to the Syria conflict.
Samar Sheikh’s neighbours used to tell her football was not for girls but the criticism stopped when her team won the very first women’s championship in Syria.
The 20-year-old also finished top scorer at the end of a season that saw teams from all over Syria face-off over weeks before the final that was held in late January in Damascus.
“I’ve been hooked on football since I was little,” says Sheikh during a training session in Amuda, a town in northeastern Syria where part of the autonomous Kurdish administration is headquartered.
“I used to watch my brothers play and I’ve watched a lot of games,” she says, as her teammates, all wearing fluorescent bibs, jog behind the coach on the artificial grass of the covered pitch.
The young Kurdish woman, sweat pearling down her face and her ruffled hair in a ponytail, recounts how she started playing when she was 15 but had to stop “because of the criticism from her family and neighbours.”
She came back to it more determined than ever to overcome social and gender prejudice and it all paid off when it was with cheers that a crowd greeted her and her team off the bus after winning the national trophy.
– Victory parade –
With their medals around their necks, Sheikh and her teammates even went on a celebratory tour of Amuda, joined in dance by residents congratulating them and asking for selfies.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Seeing all these people in the street to celebrate our victory.”
After a week-long break the team has resumed training for two hours a day.
Dalaf Hussein faced the same challenges as a teenage girl trying to live her passion for football in northeastern Syria.
Plastered on the walls of her room are posters of her favourite players, including one of Portuguese legend and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Passersby used to bother us when they saw us play in the street because it was considered a boys’ sport, but we never paid attention,” she says.
Hussein says she also had to deal with her parents’ opposition to her playing football.
“But after our victory in the championship, there was no pushback,” she says, with a chuffed smile.
Syrian society is still largely patriarchal and conservative but women enjoy greater gender equality in areas under Kurdish control.
Hussein says she hopes football will continue to grow in her region.
“Many girls have come to sign up since our victory,” she says.