UN and Western diplomats are urging Russia to help overcome Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's opposition to giving the UN a role in forming a committee to draft a new constitution for the war-torn country.
UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council on October 26 that the UN faces "a serious challenge" to its efforts to forge a peace deal in Syria as a result of the government's refusal to accept any formal role for the UN in forming the constitutional committee.
"The role of the United Nations is one of a facilitator — to facilitate inter-Syrian dialogue," Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the council, insisting that members of the constitutional committee should be selected only by Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government in coordination with government allies Iran and Russia.
At issue is a list of 50 constitutional committee members de Mistura has compiled, as directed by a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January. Damascus has objected to the representatives from civil society groups and others on the UN list, though it has accepted a list of 50 committee members offered by opposition groups in Syria.
Forming a committee to draft a post-war constitution for Syria is seen as a stepping stone to staging elections in the war-torn country.
De Mistura said he will brief the leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Turkey, who are meeting in Istanbul on October 27, on the situation. He said he hopes they will "seize the opportunity" of relative calm in Syria's seven-year civil war to push for a speedy solution on the composition of the constitutional committee.
"The influence that can be exercised by all world leaders, including very much the four world leaders who I am meeting tomorrow in Istanbul, can be crucial in ensuring that this happens," he said.
Though Washington is not participating in the Istanbul meeting, U.S. deputy UN ambassador Jonathan Cohen said it supports the UN's effort to "move swiftly to convene the constitutional committee." He added that Syria's "obstruction on the committee's formation is unacceptable."
De Mistura said "the UN is not opposed to constructive and moderate suggestions" from Syria on who to put on the list, but he said the constitutional committee must maintain "credibility, balance, international legitimacy."
France's UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said "Syria is currently at a crossroads," and it can tip into escalation of its military campaign in Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, or take "the path of political momentum," starting with agreement on a constitutional committee.
He said Russia will play a key role in determining the outcome.
"Between war and peace in Syria, the key is largely in the country of Tolstoy," Delattre said, referring to Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya urged Western leaders to exercise patience, saying "there are no grounds for establishing artificial deadlines for the establishment of a constitutional committee."
But he said: "We cannot go against the will of Syria... We will help Staffan de Mistura create this constitutional committee with respect for Syrian sovereignty."
The chief negotiator for Syria's opposition, who visited Moscow on October 26, also said he was looking to Russia to help forge a settlement of the war which has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced millions.
"Of course, Russia can do a lot and can facilitate the expansion of dialogue," Nasr al-Hariri told reporters before meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"We have strived and will continue to strive for dialogue and negotiations with Russia to achieve a political solution,"he said. "Russia is a state that has major influence on the Syrian issue."
In the past, Syria's opposition has described Russian forces, which have been providing air support for Syrian troops since 2015, as an "occupation" force.