By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - The new U.N. envoy tasked with forging peace in Syria hopes to convene a constitutional committee in Geneva "as soon as possible", he said on Friday, without giving a firm timeframe for the latest attempt to end the country's devastating war.
Formation of a constitutional committee is key to political reforms and new elections meant to unify Syria and end an almost eight-year-old war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of Syria's pre-war 22 million population.
Geir Pedersen, the fourth Syria mediator after Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, said he also had ideas about how to build trust and confidence between the two sides, who have previously attended nine rounds of largely fruitless talks as the war rumbled on.
"I think we have identified the challenges and we have agreed on how we should move forward and that I see as a very, very positive sign," Pedersen told reporters.
"My hope (is) that they will be able as soon as possible to have the constitution committee to meet in Geneva."
Syria's opposition last year agreed to join a process of rewriting the constitution under U.N. auspices following a peacemaking conference in the Russian city of Sochi.
But President Bashar al-Assad, who is emerging triumphant in the conflict and has sworn to retake every inch of Syria still outside his control, has objected to the world body naming members of the committee.
Pedersen said he could not be more specific about the timeframe for a meeting of the committee, but he said his discussions with relevant parties were good.
Asked if he would have failed if he had not presided over an end to the war by the end of his tenure, Pedersen said the aim was to negotiate an agreement between the two parties.
"To be able to get to a situation where you can say that we have been able to put eight years of conflict behind us and that we as Syrians agree that we will begin the process of creating a future for coming Syrians, that... would be the definition that we have been successful."
Pedersen met the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in Riyadh last month, shortly after a visit to Damascus, where Assad's forces have made large territorial gains on the battlefield, largely thanks to Russian and Iranian support.
Russia, Iran and Turkey, supporters of the main sides left in Syria's complex war, have so far failed to agree on the make-up of the constitutional committee.
But chief opposition negotiator Nasr Haririr said on Jan. 19 after talks with Pedersen that Syria had a good opportunity to reach a political solution to its war because ceasefires have brought calm to many areas of the country.
Pedersen added that he saw the constitutional committee as "a potential door opener" for the political process.
In parallel with this, work was also needed on other issues and he hoped to discuss this in more detail with the Syrian parties, including the government and SNC, he said.
As a sign of increasing confidence, Pedersen said he hoped to see more prisoner exchanges, and clarity on missing persons, following a swap between the government and rebel forces a few days ago, where each side handed over 20 prisoners.
(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)