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The World’s Last Colony: Morocco continues occupation of Western Sahara, in defiance of UN

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]t the 28th Summit meeting of the African Union (AU) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 30 January 2017, Morocco’s readmission to the continental body generated heated discussion. At the end of the day the Kingdom of Morocco managed to win over sufficient member states on its side and it was allowed to join the fold unconditionally.

Morocco left the Organization of African Unity (OAU), precursor to the AU, in 1984 after the OAU recognized the right to self-determination and independence for the people of the Western Sahara and admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) that was proclaimed in 1976 by the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front.

It was in keeping with the OAU principle not to recognize the occupation of any part of the continent that it admitted the SADR to its membership. While SADR claimed sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory, Morocco saw it as an integral part of its own territory. Thus, rather than accept SADR’s independence, Morocco left the OAU.

westsahara

Since then Morocco has refused to join the AU unless the organization withdraws the membership of SADR.

The Occupation of Western Sahara

The area of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1976 when Spain pulled out and relinquished its claim as a colonial power over the territory. This former Spanish colony was then annexed by Morocco. Sahrawi people, who fought Spanish colonial oppression, were now forced to fight Moroccan occupation. They conducted resistance struggle under the leadership of Polisario Front until 1991 when the United Nations (UN) brokered a truce.

A UN-supervised referendum on independence of Western Sahara was promised in 1992 but it was aborted by Morocco. A UN peacekeeping mission that was to organize the referendum has remained in the territory ever since, while Morocco built a 2,700km-long sand wall, with landmines.

SADR, headed by the Polisario Front, has been recognized by the AU as the legitimate government in exile. For decades Morocco made futile attempts to delegitimize SADR and Polisario. Eventually it applied to rejoin AU without precondition.

AU member states argued that Morocco should not be readmitted unless it accepts the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which states that, “All peoples have the right to self-determination; and by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.”

Morocco was also asked to accept unconditionally the OAU/AU African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which provides that:

Nothing shall justify the domination of a people by another. All peoples shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status.

Thus, before readmission Morocco should have accepted all the 33 Articles of the Constitutive Act of the AU with Western Sahara as a founding member. Morocco should also accept the AU Act which recognizes African colonial boundaries, thus making its continued occupation of Western Sahara illegal.

All this was thrust aside and Morocco was readmitted to the AU when 39 out of the 54 African member states voted for Morocco. They tacitly endorsed the longstanding occupation of Western Sahara, while Morocco refuses to comply with the successive UN resolutions on the holding of a referendum on self-determination.

Western Sahara thus remains the continent’s last colonial outpost, occupied by another African state. It is an albatross on the African Union’s conscience, since it was a departure from its founding principles.

The notable US professor Stephen Zunes (a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, the co-author (along with Jacob Mundy) of the illuminating book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press.), says:

“For those of us who have actually been to Western Sahara, there is no question that it is an occupation. Any verbal or visual expression of support for self-determination is savagely suppressed. Even calls for social and economic justice can be dangerous. The young sociologist Brahim Saika, a leader of a movement of unemployed Sahrawi professionals demanding greater economic justice, was tortured to death while in Moroccan detention in April 2016. Freedom House has ranked Western Sahara as among the dozen least free nations in the world, along with Tibet, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Indeed, of the more than 70 countries I have visited — including Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Indonesia under Suharto — Western Sahara is the most repressive police state I have ever seen.”

Morocco’s Goodwill Tour

Morocco’s readmission was reportedly influenced by Morocco’s King Mohammad’s affluence. This became evident when he demonstrated his largesse while touring the continent, lobbying for support from African heads.

It is said he will now bankroll the AU in line with what Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi used to do. The two are, of course, poles apart. Gaddafi, arguably, had a pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist vision, while the King aims at continued annexation of Western Sahara.

That is why prior to the AU vote the King embarked on a charm offensive by touring African countries, seeking support for his AU bid. In February 2014 he set off on a tour of Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Gabon. This was his second regional trip in less than five months. He took with him a contingent of advisors and business executives who negotiated a pile of agreements covering practically everything – from religious training to agriculture and mining projects.

In December 2016, the King concluded the second leg of a nearly two-month, six-country Africa tour, resulting in some 50 bilateral agreements. The visits came on the heels of trips to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Senegal in October, when more than 40 bilateral agreements were signed.

This is how the monarch wound up his whirlwind tour of Africa prior to the AU Summit meeting in January 2017. For those who say the royal expeditions to African countries had altruistic motive, suffice it to quote his official who said:

Aside from west and central Africa we must open up to east Africa and that is what is under way. The context of Morocco’s return to the African Union is there too of course, and these are important countries in the AU.

The tour of east Africa “is also a way to get closer to countries which historically had positions which were hostile to Morocco’s interests,” said the Moroccan source.

In some circles it is argued that Morocco’s readmission was a ‘positive’ step in that, as full member of the AU, it will now have to recognize the independence and sovereignty of SADR. If that is so then the readmission should have been conditional.

In any case, Morocco has no intention to give in on its occupation. Its return to the union is intended to eventually push for the removal of Western Sahara out of the AU, thus silencing the voice of the Sahrawi people in connivance with ‘friendly’ member states.

Yet while the AU fails to stand by such principles, the kingdom of Morocco is under pressure in the international diplomatic arena where Polisario is gaining global support. In fact, on 21 December 2016, a few days before the Addis Ababa Summit, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) dismissed Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. The ruling means the European Union’s trade deals with Morocco do not apply to the occupied territory of Western Sahara which is endowed with its fish stocks, mineral deposits, agricultural produce and oil reserves.

The UN and the European Union

The ECJ ruled that Western Sahara cannot be treated as a part of Morocco, meaning no EU-Morocco trade deals can apply to the territory. The ruling confirms the long-established legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, and upholds existing international law. The EU member states and institutions have been asked to comply with the ruling and immediately cease all agreements, funding and projects reinforcing Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

The Court also ruled that a trade deal between the EU and Morocco should be scrapped because it included products from Western Sahara. Morocco had to accept that any free trade deal would have to exclude Western Sahara. This includes the fruits and vegetables grown by companies such as Les Domaines Agricoles, which is partly owned by King Mohammed VI.

On top of this there have been more than 100 UN resolutions calling for self-determination for the Western Sahara. In March 2016, the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in Western Sahara as an “occupation.” The UN, however, has to go beyond rhetoric by enforcing its resolutions. It formally recognizes the occupation of Western Sahara as illegal, and has maintained a peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) commissioned to hold a referendum in Sahara since 1991. But it has a skeleton staff, with no mandate to even monitor human rights abuses, thanks to France’s Security Council veto.

And so the French oil company Total is active in Western Sahara, while others have pulled out. Also big investors such as the Norwegian government’s pension fund avoid any deals which involve Western Sahara. And the EFTA free trade association, a group of non-EU countries including Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein, excludes Western Sahara goods from its free trade deal with Morocco.

Morocco’s return to the AU is an affront not only to the people of Western Sahara but to African people, for Morocco is a country that once refused to host the African Cup of Nations on flimsy grounds that Moroccans would be infected by African teams bringing in Ebola virus.

Some African heads claim that the admission of Morocco will now resolve the question of Western Sahara’s occupation. Such argument is always pushed with some foreign machination. In fact Morocco is now emboldened. That is why those who voted for readmission of Morocco should have demanded an end to the illegal occupation as a precondition.

That did not happen at the AU Summit meeting in Addis Ababa. Instead we see the AU blatantly violating its own Constitutive Act, and the principle for African countries to respect each other’s territorial boundaries.

We witness a violation of both the AU and the UN declarations on the inalienable right of the people of Western Sahara to independence and self-determination.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi people are disenfranchized. It is estimated that up to 200,000 have fled to refugee camps in the neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania. They are separated by a 2,700km-long wall going through Western Sahara, surrounded by landmines.

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Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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