Sochi talks already a non-starter

Sunday 12/11/2017
Precarious phase. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem (L) attend talks at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, last October. (AP)

Beirut- The National Dialogue Con­ference scheduled for No­vember 18 in Sochi, Rus­sia, might be postponed due to a surprisingly high number of early apologies from ranking members of the Syrian op­position.
The two-day congress was the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin and seen by many as a soft alternative to the UN-man­dated Geneva process, which the Kremlin was never too enthusiastic about.
Putin started toying with the idea of a Russian-made conference in early October, hoping to bring 1,300 Syrian delegates to his favourite resort on the Red Sea, where they would discuss a settlement tailor-made to his liking. Three back-to-back Sochi talks would follow, giving political substance to the technical Astana talks started by Russia, Iran and Turkey in May. It seemed like a perfect and spectacu­lar show for the Russian president — a golden opportunity to tell the world: “I am in charge of Syria now and I hammer out endgames fit to my liking.”
Charter flights were being pre­pared to fly the government del­egation with parliamentarians and cabinet ministers to Moscow and then to Sochi and back, escorted by heavy media attendance.
Somewhere along the way, some­thing went wrong. At least two heavyweight groups in the Syrian opposition have rejected the con­ference: The Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee and the Istanbul-based Syrian National Co­alition. With no regional support, Sochi will fail or fizzle out like all similar Syria peace initiatives since 2011.
Not a single Islamic party was invited to the Sochi talks, certainly not the powerful Muslim Broth­erhood, leaving the participation looking increasingly disconnected from what the Syrian street looks like.
The Russian Foreign Ministry published a list of 33 political enti­ties that received invitations for Sochi, 18 of them being groups from inside Syria. Only the Ba’ath Party and its two allies, the Syrian Com­munist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, have a real power base. Other parties on the invitee list were either regime-created or regime-friendly, making the con­ference, armed opposition com­mander Mohammad Alloush said, “dialogue between the regime and the regime.”
Other influential players expected to attend the conference were the home-grown National Coordination Committees and a handful of Kurd­ish groups that control of all Kurd­ish territory east of the Euphrates River.
For now, the decision in Moscow is to put off the conference, rather than call it off altogether, wait­ing until after the opposition has its second convention in Riyadh on November 15 and after the next round of Geneva talks kick off on November 28. Russian diplomats are working around the clock to convince boycotting parties to at­tend, promising that this conven­tion will be different from every­thing else but this does not seem to be working because neither Syrian players nor their regional backers are convinced.
A breakthrough might happen if Putin meets with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Eco­nomic Cooperation Conference. The last time the two leaders met was in July, when they agreed on a de-conflict zone for southern Syria, manned by 1,000 Russian military police, aimed at freeing both the Syrian-Israeli and Syrian-Jordanian borders from Hezbollah influence. They might agree again on some­thing big this time but if they don’t then Sochi is off — at least for now.
Moscow is under increasing pres­sure from the United States to come up with a sustainable and credible political process in Syria now that its war on terror is coming to an end. The Trump administration does not really care what that endgame en­tails if it includes eradication of the Islamic State (ISIS), empowerment of Syrian Kurds and clipping the wings of Iran.
Russian officials have presented their Syrian allies with a two-page document outlining their vision for Sochi — a process that leads to “political reform” rather than us­ing the word “transition.” Syrian negotiators would need to agree on creating a constitutional assem­bly to discard, amend or adopt the Russian-proposed charter and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, under UN supervision.
Damascus nodded to parliamenta­ry elections while Moscow stressed presidential ones as well that are free and open with no restrictions on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ability to seek re-election — some­thing, of course, that Saudi Arabia will not approve and that, seem­ingly, Putin was unable to talk Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud into when the two leaders met in Moscow in October.
Although neither Iran nor Tur­key has opposed the Sochi talks, neither has embraced them either. Nor have the United States, France or Great Britain and certainly not Saudi Arabia or the United Nations. All seem to believe they are slowly being squeezed out of the political process, taking the role of advisers to Putin rather than stakeholders. At best, they are being given a share of the territorial spoils but always to share with Moscow, never to reign alone. None of them are happy with that.