Sochi congress promises anything but peace in Syria

  • The pre-scripted joint communiqué appeased the Assad regime while disappointing the opposition groups. Like the US in Israel, Russia’s role in Syrian conflict is far from one of mediation

Russia is on a clear path to consolidate Putin’s declared victory in Syria. The Kremlin wants to replace the Geneva peace process with Sochi congress and Turkey is on board. The stage is being set to preserve Russia, Iran and Assad’s gains in Syria through excessive use of force. Ankara is hopping on the bandwagon largely to deter any larger role for Kurdish militants organized under the flag of YPD.

Though 1,600 delegates were invited to Sochi, the key opposition groups boycotted the conference. Kurds were not welcome in Putin’s bid to appease Erdogan. The signs of coercing the opposition into submission were less subtle. The two-starred flag of Ba’athist Syria was embedded in the conference logo, which the Anti-Assad delegates protested against. Russia agreed to change the conference symbol to address their concerns. The opposition camp heckled the Russian foreign minister during the inaugural speech.

Yet the UN focal person Syria Staffan de Mistura chose to ignore the defiant voices and disregarded concerns of Russia hijacking more credible Geneva Peace Process. His remarks leave little doubt: “I have taken…careful note that in your Final Declaration today you have embraced 12 principles developed in the Geneva political process, which describe a vision of Syria that all Syrians should be able to share.” Washington was not present on the occasion even as an observer. Putin’s team sounds confident of engineering a resolution to the seven-year-old public uprising. Moscow’s favourite solution for the Syria conflict is amendments in the existing constitution with Assad still holding power. Though Turkey privately approves of it, the opposition groups see no end to the conflict with the Assads in power. Turkey lowered its participation to the deputy minister level while engaging in intensive talks with Russia over contentious issues.

Staffan de Mistura sounded in sync with the Russian position on setting up a constitutional committee under the Sochi framework. By ignoring the dissenting voice including of Europe and America, the Italian-Danish diplomat is according UN’s legitimacy to the Russia-led arrangement.

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Photo Credits: Reuters

The US refusal to validate Sochi conference is an important hurdle for Mistura and his clique. Washington has categorically started to stick to the UN-led process thereby calling for revival Geneva peace talks. The delegates comprising Syrian opposition leaders and Kurd figures present there in individual capacity had low-level expectations from the gathering. On the instruction from the regime, the state-sponsored delegates did not interact with the opposition figures. There were neither handshakes nor courtesy greetings or informal dinner table conversations.

The joint communique spells out the constitution of a committee comprising 150 members, with only 50 from the opposition side. As long as Assad and Russia continue to violate de-escalation zones agreed upon in Astana, the prospects of a peaceful settlement will become ever more thinner. Displacement has increased and so has the death toll. Though denied by Russia and Assad, the use of chemical agents is obvious from the footage of the attacks’ aftermath.

The Sochi event was stage-managed to the extent that the delegates accused the organizers of releasing the joint communiqué that was prepared beforehand.

Despite all its failings, the Sochi congress’ success was no less consequential. The UN legitimized Russia’s role and engaged in deliberations with Moscow. The so-called process of de-confliction of Syria may not get the UN Secretary General’s nod given its orchestrated nature and widespread opposition. Mistura has little leverage with the opposition ranks. His efforts for peace can be marked by waiting it out till one of the sides achieves a dominant position. His talks with the Russian foreign ministry now lead him to the next stage i.e. imposing a peace plan by force.

Prima facie, Russia, Iran and Assad seem to have consolation points for being able to put up a show resembling a peace process: the Sochi initiative is not dead but Geneva is. The assembly also serves their desire for no real reforms or peace process beyond the use of force. While the opposition delegates flew to the Russian city, the fighter jets continued to pound the opposition-held areas with deadly weapons.

Turkey, meanwhile, remained focused on countering its existential threat: the militant Kurds. While Ankara expected little results from the Russia sponsored event, it appeased Putin with its participation in return for inaction in support of YPD. After clearing 20 to 30 kilometres of Kurd militants inside the Syrian border, Turkish troops will move to the urban areas to dislodge the PPK allied militia from its core. Though the odds in urban warfare will be greater for Erdogan’s military, Russian nod to Turkish air cover will be instrumental. Thus, the Sochi diplomacy was pragmatic from Ankara’s point of view while being detrimental to the Syria opposition forces and the people.

As the US mulls over its response to the Turkish military campaign in Afrin region, the Assad regime gains with the weakening of relations between Washington and Ankara. The YPG’s use of suicide bombers is already putting the US in an awkward position for it regards the tactic as terrorism.

The atmospherics are favorable to Assad and its allies. The situation may change only if Turkey breaks away with Russia over conflict of interest or the militants make significant gains against Damascus in the capital. The chances for the revival of the Geneva peace process will remain bleak as long as the western powers avoid proactive diplomacy to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people for a wide-ranging dialogue. Thus far, the regional players seem content with preserving their respective national interests.

Naveed Ahmad

Naveed Ahmad

The writer is a distinguished investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He specializes in matters concerning security, diplomacy and governance.