Russian-backed conference in Sochi turns into power struggle as opposition groups stay away
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will attend a Russian-sponsored peace conference boycotted by the official Syrian opposition at which over 1,000 delegates are expected to endorse a statement urging the west to lift sanctions and start rebuilding Syria.
The Syrian national dialogue congress, meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday and Tuesday, is also being boycotted by the main Syrian Kurdish groups.
The Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), Syria’s umbrella opposition group, voted on Saturday not to attend Vladimir Putin’s showpiece conference, saying it was designed to subtract from the UN-sponsored peace talks.
The SNC is deeply unhappy that the UN hours later announced that De Mistura would attend Sochi, a decision hailed by the Russian foreign ministry.
The Sochi peace conference, and the credibility attached to it, has turned into a power struggle over how the seven-year Syrian civil war will end, and whether a settlement would leave open the possibility that Bashar al-Assad could be removed from office in UN-recognised democratic elections. Putin is determined that Russia emerges from the process as the undisputed power broker.
But the SNC said Russia had no intention of letting the Sochi peace process lead to any political change away from the Assad regime. Leaks have suggested that few of the preconditions for attendance set by the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, including the primacy of the UN process, have been explicitly met by the Russians.
“The secretary-general is confident that the congress in Sochi will be an important contribution to a revived intra-Syrian talks process under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva,” the UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement.
The SNC made its boycott decision with 26 of its 36 members opposing attendance after the UN-led peace talks in Vienna ended late on Friday night with no sign Russia was willing to put decisive pressure on Assad to negotiate on the key issues at the heart of the De Mistura peace plan. Turkey, one of the bodies sponsoring the SNC, had been urging it to attend and change the Sochi conference from within.
Russia and Turkey, along with Iran, are sponsoring the Sochi talks, at which the vast majority of delegates are expected to favour Assad remaining in power. A statement due to be backed at the conference will call for the lifting of unilateral sanctions and urge the west to help in the reconstruction of Syria.
The conference will also set up a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria.
Authorities in Syria’s Kurdish autonomous region also said on Sunday they would not attend the talks, blaming Turkey’s weeklong offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
The Vienna talks were also marked by anger from the regime over a set of political proposals from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain and France that would involve strengthening the role of Syria’s prime minister at the expense of Assad’s authority. The proposals also called for the appropriate conditions to hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. The proposals largely follow policy guidelines set out by Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, in a speech at Stanford University that was designed to mark a new policy of engagement in Syria following the defeat of Islamic State.
The Syrian government negotiator Bashar Jaafari told reporters it was “tantamount to a black comedy” that these countries were seeking to shape Syria’s political future as Arabic and English versions of the document circulated online.
“All of them have participated in the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he said of the five nations, blasting the US as the country “that created Isis” and adding that Saudi Arabia was anything but a “beacon of freedom in the east”.