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Russian Syria peace talks achieve little beyond further division as fighting continues in Afrin

Clashes, boycotts and one group refusing to leave the airport - the lack of movement towards an end to the Syrian civil war has become a sadly familiar motif

Oliver Carroll
Tuesday 30 January 2018 22:07 GMT

The Congress of Syrian National Dialogue, Russia’s unlikely peace conference apparently aimed at trying to bring an end to a devastating civil war, was several months in the making. By the time it started, three hours late and without a clear timetable, it was teetering on disaster.

A key delegation of the armed opposition had arrived in Sochi, the venue of the Congress, only to refuse to leave the airport. They had taken offence at the event logo, plastered around town, which used the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in isolation. The opposition delegation demanded the banners be removed. Mediation by the Turkish government was unsuccessful. Sometime on Tuesday morning, several dozen delegates flew back to Ankara; only three decided to stay.

Russia – a staunch supporter of Mr Assad – said it had invited 1,600 representatives to the congress, hoping that it would launch negotiations on drafting a new constitution for Syria. The event was already being boycotted by the leadership of the Syrian opposition, while Western countries like Britain and France made clear their support a separate UN-mediated peace process, which held its latest talks last week.

Things were no smoother at the opening ceremony. Half-way through his short speech, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was stopped in his tracks by a small group of hecklers. Security guards quickly made their way towards the group, but not before they accused Russia of killing innocent Syrian civilians, with one shouting “You are killing our people”. The protest was soon drowned out by a rival group shouting in support of President Assad. Minister Lavrov looked on impatiently.

Asked to comment on the situation, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry accepted there had been “some problems” with the start of the Congress. Syrian opposition groups had made “additional demands” on organisers, he said, but, after a couple of ministerial phone calls, the situation was now resolved: the Turkish government would represent the interests of Syrian opposition.

There were several unresolved questions: Was the Russian Congress logo deliberate, a hint at the outcome of the conference, or an oversight? Were the Russians aware of potential issues, and, if so, why did the banners remain? Why had the opposition waited until today to bring the matter to light? The logo had, after all, been known for several weeks.

According to Russia, the Congress was designed to unite Syria’s many warring parties around a single post-war settlement. Critics of the talks pointed to the absence of much of the armed Syrian opposition and Kurdish groups, who stayed away. Both have resisted Russian efforts to legitimise President Assad, and to create alternatives to the Western-backed UN peace process in Geneva.

Vitaly Naumkin, a Syria-expert closely associated with the Russian government, led the briefing of journalists, who were kept in a restricted area away from the discussion hall. Mr Naumkin insisted that the absence of the Syrian armed opposition or Kurds had not made the Sochi Congress any less legitimate, and pointed to the attendance of United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, as proof: “Having a UN representative here is a clear sign of support and legitimacy,” he said.

Since its beginnings in 2011, the Syrian civil war has lurched from one set of complexities to another.

In Syria, opposition activists reported more air strikes on the rebel-held Idlib province, which has faced heavy government bombardment, and Turkish troops continued their offensive on the Afrin enclave, held by a US-allied Kurdish militia which also boycotted the Russian-sponsored talks.

Tensions in the Russian-Kurdish relationship was the one obvious issue hanging over the Congress. Only a handful of Kurdish delegates made it to Sochi, and most of those were Moscow-based.

The assault on Afrin is still very fresh. In a statement on Saturday, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) said Russia behaved as a “partner in crime”. “Without the permission of global forces and mainly Russia, whose troops are located in Afrin, Turkey cannot attack civilians using Afrin airspace,” it said. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed group of Kurdish fighters, described the failure of Russia to intervene as a “betrayal” and “immoral.”

Mr Naumkin told journalists that Russia understood the Kurdish grievances, but had prioritised its alliance with Turkey and Iran. That troika now dominates the Syrian peace process, with talks in Astana arguably superseding the UN-led Geneva process. Astana delivered the last major breakthrough in July, when “de-escalation” zones were established around Syria.

Whether the faltering Sochi event will help add to that dominance is less clear. According to Anton Mardasov, a non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the primary audience for the Congress was domestic.

“Sochi was successful in terms of the presidential election campaign, but only that” he said. “It’s only shot at international legitimacy was if the armed opposition attended, and that did not happen.”

Depleted of two of the main military groupings, the Sochi Congress ended with a few vague resolutions. Delegates had agreed Sochi would “supplement the Geneva process,” said UN envoy Mr de Mistura, and would set up a new committee “exploring constitutional reform.” However, work on the constitution has already been met with disdain by critics who suggest it will have no credibility with opposition groups who have boycotted the conference and will do little more than entrench Mr Assad’s position.

Mr Lavrov said that the committee working on the constitution would be doing so from Geneva and it would include groups not present in Sochi. There will, however likely be consternation from opposition groups over the final statement from the conference. That urged the preservation of security forces without calling for their reform, something the opposition has demanded.

The statement also said Syrians must decide their future through elections, but did not say whether Syrian refugees would be allowed to take part, something sought by Mr Assad's opponents and Western states - making it hard to conclude that the conference had done more than kicking the Syrian can further down the road.

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