By Henry Meyer
Russia’s hopes for an internationally backed peace plan were dealt a blow as major opposition forces boycotted a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi aimed at outlining a deal.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was heckled as he spoke at the opening of the session, where the Kremlin is trying to forge a settlement securing the success of its military campaign to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian leader’s opponents accuse him of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and have pushed for his ouster. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in his two-year air campaign in December, tensions have risen with the U.S., which has vowed to maintain a long-term military presence in the northeast of Syria where it’s backing Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The Kremlin invited 1,600 Syrians to Sochi but the main opposition faction said it wouldn’t attend because the conference was an attempt to usurp the role of United Nations-led talks in Geneva.
In a message to the participants, read by Lavrov, Putin said that “today all the conditions are in place to turn this tragic page in Syria’s history.”
Russia has teamed up with fellow Assad supporter Iran as well as Turkey as it attempts to forge a settlement in Syria. Condemning the U.S. plans, Moscow gave Ankara the green light earlier this month to attack Syrian Kurds in the northwest. The Turks consider them terrorists linked to separatists inside Turkish territory and have also threatened to extend their offensive to the American-controlled zone.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, attended the one-day meeting Tuesday. Russia will ask the UN to take the lead in discussions on a new constitution for Syria, said its envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev.
But in a challenge to Russia, the U.S. and Arab and European allies met in Washington in mid-January to present their own plan for post-war Syria — which would devolve most powers from the presidency according to media reports. The West is also vowing to withhold any reconstruction aid for regime-controlled areas, with estimates showing that as much as $300 billion may be needed to rebuild the country after almost seven years of war.
“Sochi is an attempt to create a rival platform for talks but Russia isn’t accepted as a mediator,” said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts in Moscow. “Its goal is to reinforce Assad’s position.”