Sochi conference on Syria back on track
In an ever-changing world and increasingly unpredictable Syrian quagmire, the Sochi conference is back on track and in full throttle, now scheduled for December 2.
Originally set for mid-November, the conference was abruptly cancelled after several heavyweight opposition groups declined to attend, including the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
During talks in Vietnam earlier this month, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly agreed on a basket of issues related to Syria, which breathed life into three milestones for the country. First is the much-delayed conference of the Syrian opposition, scheduled for November 22 in Riyadh. Second is the next round of Geneva talks, earmarked for November 28. Third is Sochi.
Now rid of the Islamic State (ISIS) throughout all its former major strongholds, Putin is seemingly eager to announce “Mission accomplished” ahead of the Russian New Year in early January. He wants to start withdrawing his troops, a strategy that undoubtedly will serve his political agenda ahead of the Russian presidential elections next March.
To do that, however, he needs to cut more deals with the Americans, acknowledging their share and spoils of the Syrian battlefield.
Putin has agreed to support the US Army’s presence in post-ISIS Syria, until the peace process kicks off and bears fruit. Trump and Putin agreed to prevent a clash of their forces in Syrian airspace and to work closer together on the four “de-conflict zones” in eastern Damascus, northern Homs, Idlib in north-western Syria and southern Syria.
In return, Trump will let Putin stage his Sochi conference in December. He will not embrace it but will not discredit it or hamper its resolutions. To calm his fears, Iran will only be an observer to Sochi, certainly not a main player or a guarantor, as it had been at the Astana talks that kicked off last May.
Russian diplomats have been working to invite 1,300 Syrian delegates to the Red Sea resort. Under supervision of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they are obtaining regional and international support for the National Dialogue Conference of Syria.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov met with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura on November 14 in Geneva, insisting, it seems, to keep the United Nations onboard. Sochi will not be a replacement to Geneva, he noted, something that was affirmed at the Vietnam talks.
Meanwhile, top diplomats hosted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Ansari in Moscow. He has expressed scepticism about the Sochi process. The Iranians are unhappy with any political process that leads to change, fearing that Moscow and Washington will cut deals at their expense in Syria. They are very worried, it seems, that part of the deal would involve pushing Hezbollah forces out of the southern front, now manned by 1,000 Russian military police.
Putin and Trump agreed that there was no military solution in Syria, only a political one, which contradicts what has been said by senior Iranian clerics and generals. They also agreed to eject “all foreign troops” from Syria, a reference to the Iranians and Lebanese.
The Turks are also uneasy with Sochi, especially because it involves a wide assortment of Kurdish militias and political parties, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), two organisations Ankara considers terrorist groups. In exchange for attending the Sochi conference and letting its proxies in the Syrian battlefield attend, Ankara asked Russia to freeze invitations sent to Kurdish politicians.
The Riyadh conference is expected to squeeze all Qatari-backed opposition figures, creating a new negotiating team to lead the November 28 Switzerland talks. Chances are that HNC Chairman Riad Hijab will be replaced with a more accommodating figure to Moscow.
Many are asking, however, what the united opposition delegation will be discussing in Geneva after the latest Trump-Putin understandings put a lid on its ambitions and drew the rough boundaries of what the political endgame will look like.
After unilaterally ending CIA operations to equip, train and arm the Syrian opposition, the Americans have seemingly also abandoned hopes of a transition government as well. A new constitution might no longer be necessary, as the Putin-Trump statement settles for “constitutional reforms,” rather than a new charter.
It also calls for “elections” without specifying whether they would be parliamentary or presidential, acknowledging Syrian President Bashar Assad’s commitment to the political process and mentioning him by name. It doesn’t call on him to step down. It doesn’t say that he has no future in Syria nor does it say that he cannot run for a new term when his present tenure expires in 2021.