Syrians tasked with amending their war-torn country's constitution met Monday in Geneva for the first time in nine months, amid cautious hopes the meeting could help spark a broader political process.
Delegations from President Bashar al-Assad's government, the opposition and civil society kicked off a week of discussions moderated by Geir Pedersen, the United Nations special envoy for Syria.
The delegates, all wearing facemasks, arrived at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva in separate minivans.
Ahmad Al-Kuzbari, who heads the government delegation, and the opposition's Hadi Al-Bahra both waved as they entered the building, but delegates did not speak to reporters.
Pedersen, who met with the two co-chairs and with civil society representatives over the weekend, tweeted Sunday that he was "looking forward to a week of substantial discussions on the agenda and moving the process forward."
The Norwegian diplomat told reporters last week that he saw the meeting as "an important step in the right direction," and said he hoped it could serve as "a door-opener to a broader political process."
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 they have been delayed by the coronavirus crisis.
- 'Encouraged' -
The UN 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 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.
Only Syrians are involved in the process, but representatives from a range of countries involved in the increasingly complex conflict, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, were expected in Geneva this week.
Pedersen said he would try to meet with them on the sidelines, but stressed that Syria's constitutional review was being carried out by Syrians alone, "without any foreign interference."
James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria and the coalition against the Islamic State jihadist group, told journalists at a Geneva hotel Monday that the simple fact of the meeting going ahead had "encouraged" Washington.
"We certainly expect a more positive result than what we saw last time," he said.
He suggested that a range of pressures on the Assad regime over the past nine months, including fresh US sanctions, military setbacks and deep economic crises, could push it to shift strategies.
Washington, he said, was eager "to maintain pressure until the Syrian government and its partners realise that they are not going to achieve a military victory".
"The only solution is... political process leading to a political transition."
Pedersen meanwhile acknowledged on Friday that nobody expected "a miracle or a breakthrough" from this week's talks.
"This is about the beginning, about a long and cumbersome process where we hopefully can start to see progress."