Syrian peace talks began on Jan. 29 in the southern Russian city of Sochi as part of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, organized by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow, while the event was boycotted by the war-torn country’s main opposition Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC).
Following technical talks on Jan. 29, the congress aims to bring Syria closer to creating a post-war constitution, after two days of separate talks backed by the United Nations in Vienna last week closed without any sign the warring sides had met face-to-face to discuss the groundwork for the document.
The U.N. announced this past weekend the participation of its special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who arrived Monday in Sochi.
Representatives of Iran, Russia and Turkey held consultations with de Mistura that same day.
Regime-backer Moscow has invited 1,600 people to the talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as part of a broader push to consolidate its influence in the region and start hammering out a path to a political solution to end the bloody conflict. Only a fraction of the invitees are set to participate in the event, however, according to a list of participants seen by AFP, which has about 350 people on it.
The Syrian government confirmed the participation of a delegation of 680 people while the Syrian opposition is to be represented by 400 participants, Anadolu Agency reported.
After another round of failed peace talks in Vienna last week, the SNC said it would not attend the Sochi congress. The main opposition group accused the Syrian regime and its Russian backers of continuing to rely on military might—and showing no willingness to enter into honest negotiations—as the war in which more than 340,000 people have already died approaches its seventh year. More than three dozen other Syrian rebel groups, including influential Islamists, previously said they would not come to Sochi.
“We regret very much that the leadership of the Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiation Committee that took part in inter-Syrian negotiations in Vienna under the chairmanship of Staffan de Mistura made such a statement about its unwillingness to take part in the congress. We hope that common sense will prevail, […] the invitation remains on the table,” said Russian envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev in an interview with Russian News Agency TASS.
The Kremlin has downplayed expectations of the event, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling journalists Monday that “breakthroughs in the task of political regulation in Syria are hardly possible.”
He added however, that under-representation would not “disrupt this congress or undermine its importance,” calling the Sochi talks a “very important” step toward peace.
Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Kazakhstan are among the countries that were invited as observers.
Members from Syria’s Kurdish autonomous region said on Jan. 28 they would not participate because of Turkey’s ongoing offensive on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Ankara, which considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria a “terrorist” group, has vowed to continue and possibly expand the operation despite international concern and strained relations with Washington.
Moscow, which has spearheaded rounds of talks from the start of last year in Kazakhstan’s Astana, initially hoped to convene the congress in Sochi last November but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors. Turkey strongly reacted to participation of the Syrian Kurdish militia when Moscow invited the YPG/Democratic Union Party (PYD) to the congress in November 2017.
Western powers have viewed the Russian peace initiative with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the U.N.-backed talks with a view of carving out a settlement that strengthens its ally Assad.
But a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said over the weekend that he would send his Syria peace negotiator to Sochi after receiving assurances the conference would not seek to sideline the organization’s own talks.