In Syrian opposition’s view, Sochi is a non-starter

All talk of ‘transitional government’ has been taken off the negotiating table at Sochi

Damascus: Invitations to the Syrian National Dialogue conference, scheduled to be held at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday and Tuesday, were sent from Moscow last week.

The first invitees were Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, along with the two guarantors of the Astana process, Turkey and Iran, and all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

A total of 1,600 Syrians are believed to have received their invitation letters and those inside Syria have been flown to Sochi on Russian airplanes from the military airbase of Hmeimeem.

The long guest list includes politicians, writers, syndicate members, armed opposition groups, academics, artists, civil servants, and businessmen.

The invitations were signed by Alexander Lavrentiev on behalf of President Vladimir Putin.

A special emblem has been designed for the conference: A fluttering Syrian flag, with its two green stars, alongside a peace dove. There is no reference to the tricolour of the Syrian opposition.

The original date for the Sochi forum was late November, but it was postponed twice in December. The reason for the delays is that Putin wanted a full house at Sochi, with no abstentions, vetoes, or absentees. He wants the event to be a big media and political spectacle, tailor-made to his liking. However, on Saturday, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said it will boycott the conference. Within the HNC, 10 members said ‘yes’ to going, and 25 said ‘no’, which is creating divisions within the largest opposition bloc.

The Sochi documents point to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for the creation of a transitional government, the drafting of a new constitution, and preparing for forthcoming ‘elections’ without specifying whether they would be parliamentarian or presidential.

Earlier, Russian officials had interpreted the term ‘transition government’ as a transition from war to peace, from one constitution to another, or from one multi-party rule to a power-sharing formula, stressing that it does not mean regime change, as the Syrian Opposition has been demanding. The original text of the first round of talks in Geneva, dating back to the summer of 2012, has been fully scrapped at Sochi, drowning all talk of a Transitional Government Body (TGB) to rule Syria instead of Bashar Al Assad. The Sochi documents, like Resolution 2254, makes no mention of Al Assad.

Three committees have been created for Sochi. The first is a steering committee, charged with leading the inter-Syrian dialogue.

Prominent writer Michel Kilo described the conference as “high treason” while Fayez Sara, a veteran opponent of the Baathist state, told Gulf News: “This cannot be another Taif [a reference to the conference in the Saudi city that ended the Lebanon war back in 1990). A Taif needs a programme to end the war, but that isn’t the case at Sochi because the patrons themselves are major players in this war. Russia is only assembling people who support its vision for the Syrian endgame.”

Previous media reports had said that the Russians had been considering former vice-president Farouk Al Shara, 79, to chair the Sochi talks, given that he had handled the first dialogue conference held near Damascus, back in July 2011. He has since been dismissed from his post, although members of the opposition have indicated that he would be a credible interlocutor.

Sources told Gulf News that Al Shara has not been invited to Sochi, and even if he attends, he won’t chair the conference. Instead a four-man committee will administer the talks, and will likely include two figures from Damascus, in addition to human rights lawyer Haitham Manaa and Khalid Mahameed, a doctor-turned-businessman, who rose to fame in opposition ranks as recently as 2015. They are members of the National Coordination Committees (NCC), a homegrown branch of the opposition whose chairman, Hasan Abdul Azeem, remains in Damascus.

A second committee will be charged with debating constitutional reforms suggested through a Russian draft charter, put forth in 2016. The regime hopes to hold a national referendum over the suggested constitutional amendments by next summer.

A third committee will handle upcoming early parliamentary elections, possibly in late 2018.

Presidential elections won’t be on the table at Sochi, and they won’t happen before Al Assad’s present term ends in 2021. Russia and Iran have insisted that he is entitled to run for a fourth term after the current term expires three years from now.

For these reasons, many in the Syrian opposition are not enthusiastic about Sochi. A wide array of armed groups were expected to show up at the very last minute, nudged into attending by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is shifting fully into Putin’s orbit, in light of the Russian green light to strike at Kurdish militias in the city of Afrin, within Russian spheres of influence west of the Euphrates River.

In exchange for letting the Turkish operation happen, Erdogan is expected to abandon his ambitions in the Idlib province in the Syrian northwest, and to get all his proxies in the Syrian battlefield to sign off the Sochi conference.

Until this week, the Saudi-backed HNC was still undecided on whether to attend or not, but a final decision to boycott was reached on Saturday. The Kurds were crossed off the invitation list, in order to please Erdogan. Although allied to the US, the Kurdish Protection Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces have both been written off as “terrorists” by Turkey for affiliation with the outlawed PKK.

The only faction Erdogan had been willing to accept is the Kurdish National Council, which operates under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Coalition, but it too won’t be attending after it broke away from the mainstream opposition, in objection to their support for the Afrin operation.

Fayez Sara commented on the outcomes of Sochi, saying “they will be ready in advance”. The first serves Putin’s presidential elections next March, where he hopes to use Sochi to tell Russian voters: “We have scored a political victory in Syria, in addition to the military one that led to the defeat of Daesh. The second objective will be to maintain the regime in Damascus, with no crucial or deep political change to its structure.”


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