UN envoy De Mistura says focus will be on constitution and “free and fair elections”

The UN has dropped the phrase “political transition” from its concept of talks to resolve Syria’s six-year conflict, a shift pointing to acceptance of President Assad’s retention of power.

Speaking to the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura evaded questions about Friday’s e-mail from his spokesman putting aside “transition”. Instead, he maintained the line that discussions, due to resume in Geneva this week, will focus on a new constitution, free and fair elections administered under UN supervision, and transparent and accountable governance.

See Syria Daily, Feb 18: UN Drops Term “Political Transition”

The pursuit of a “transitional governing authority” has been a central tenet of the international approach to Syria since June 2012. However, President Assad — boosted by Russian and Iranian support — has been more and more vocal in his rejection, restating it firmly in January amid the renewal of indirect talks between the regime and an opposition-rebel bloc.

The President of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Anas al-Abdah, reiterated on Sunday that Assad had to goL “We cannot address the profound security threats…while [he] remains in power.”

Where’s the US?

Elsewhere in his remarks, de Mistura criticized Washington, “One thing I’m missing at the moment…is a clear U.S. strategy Where are the United States (on a political solution)? I can’t tell you, because I don’t know.”

The envoy has pressed for a renewed US-Russia push for a resolution; however, Moscow has preferred since summer 2016 to work with Turkey in the assertion of a nominal ceasefire and the convening of the talks between the regime and the opposition-rebel bloc.

US envoy Brett McGurk said the Republican Administration of Donald Trump is carrying out a full review of its Syria policy, but cautioned against high expectations: “I don’t think the U.S. will come in with a one-size fits all solution because there isn’t one.

McGurk said Washington was focused on liberating Raqqa from Islamic State control, rather than the conflict between Assad and the Syrian opposition and rebels:

We will be selfish about advancing our interests. Number One we have to defeat Daesh [the Islamic State]. It is a significant threat to all of us. Right now Daesh is sitting in Raqqa and it is where they are planning major attacks against all of us.”

The head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, spoke with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar in Turkey on Friday about the possibility of coordinated operations to take Raqqa, ISIS’s central position in northern Syria.

The US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces has been outside Raqqa for months, but the offensive has been checked by political issues. Turkey sees the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading faction in the SDF, as linked to the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura at the Munich Security Conference, February 19, 2017 (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)