Mixed results at Sochi as peace drive changes dynamics

Sochi creates new dynamics between the warring Syrian factions, paving the road for serious face-to-face talks.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gives a speech during a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi, on January 30.  (AFP)
Russia-engineered. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi. (AFP)

After much delay, the Syrian National Dialogue Conference took place at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Online activists from both camps tore it apart, however, criticising the calibre of most of the 1,511 participants, saying they don’t represent the people of Syria.

Although 107 of its members were represented at Sochi, the Syrian opposition was furious with the entire event, claiming that its colleagues had sold out to the Russians. Several commanders of the armed opposition staged a sit-in at Sochi airport, objecting to the emblem of the conference, which showed the flag of the Syrian government with no tri-colour of the Syrian opposition. They returned to Turkey, asking the Turkish government to carry out the talks on their behalf. This added insult to injury among the anti-regime camp, which claimed that it jeopardises their integrity and independence.

Ankara’s name was on the invitation cards and so was that of Iran, explaining why prominent Kurdish groups such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), lobbed into the “terrorist basket” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were absent from Sochi.

They were not too enthusiastic about coming anyway, especially after the Turkish Army started pounding the Kurdish city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River. Certain Kurdish individuals showed up at the conference but in their personal capacities and not as political groups. They were dragged to the event by the Russian Foreign Ministry several times during the January 29 event as the conference was on the verge of imploding.

The result, however, was exactly what the Russians wanted for Sochi. They desired a big show, with plenty of names that reflect ethnic and social diversity, regardless of who they were and how much influence they truly wielded.

The conference, it must be remembered, was the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He wanted a new political process to go hand-in-hand with the Astana talks, which would supplement, eventually overshadow and ultimately replace the UN-mandated Geneva process. That is why he insisted on the presence of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.

All mention of regime change was dropped from the agenda, due not least to the presence of de Mistura and several ranking members of the opposition such as Ahmad al-Jarba, former head of the Syrian National Coalition, and Haytham Manna of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). Second-tier opposition figures were also in the room, including Moscow-backed Randa Kassis and former Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Qadri Jamil.

These four opposition figures, along with de Mistura, signed off a final communique that calls for the creation of a constitutional committee to amend the charter of 2012. The conference came forth with 200 names to be on the list, which will be shortened to 45-50. The final committee, the constitution states, needs to be signed off by Syrian President Bashar Assad, something that none of the opposition figures at the conference seemed to mind.

For now, Sochi will support Geneva and not replace it, as both serve the end purpose of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. That resolution calls for drafting of a new constitution, which is expected by next summer, and “elections” without explaining whether they would be parliamentary or presidential.

The next round of Sochi is due to happen before the spring. Participants are to discuss a timetable of the constitutional assembly, the framework of operation and the actual text in addition to setting a date for the next parliamentary elections.

Now that a constitutional assembly is in the works, details need to be sorted out: a timetable, a framework of operation, authorities and what text will it work on, the present charter or a completely new one. This essentially supplants the former political process from regime change, as it had started out in the summer of 2012, to one of constitutional reform. Even power-sharing in an upcoming government was scrapped off the table.

What the conference also achieved was bringing the two sides onto the same podium, for the first time since 2011, breaking the taboo of interaction. Figures long written off as terrorists and paid agents of foreign countries have been accepted by Damascus as legitimate interlocutors in the political process.

For its part, the opposition needs to accept the reality that it will not bring down the regime in Damascus but rather deal with it — and the Russians — if they want to play a political role in Syria.

Sochi broke the psychological barrier and put all willing participants on the road of an endgame, one that is tailor-made to fit the vision of the Russian president. At the end of the day, only Russia-backed opposition figures made it through the Russia-engineered dialogue.

Many had expected Moscow to call off the event if the Saudi-backed opposition didn’t show up. That didn’t happen and the Russians saw the boycott as a blessing in disguise, using their absence to promote their own proxies in the Syrian opposition.

Sochi creates new dynamics between the warring Syrian factions, paving the road for serious face-to-face talks. The conference has imposed new terms of reference that all sides, the United Nations included, will have to take into consideration, pushing Geneva I, which in 2014 called for regime change in Damascus, way back into history.