Sochi meeting struggles to find peace for Syria

Sergei Lavrov heckled, opposition quits accuses Russians of 'broken promises'

Former Syrian opposition leader, leader of Law-Citizenship-Rights Movement (QMH) Haytham Manna answers questions during a press conference on the sidelines of a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi on January 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV
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Russian-led Syrian talks got off to a chaotic start on Tuesday following a two-hour delay and boycotts by opposition groups.

Moscow - a backer of the Damascus regime - hosted the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, in hopes of paving the way to drafting a new constitution for Syria.

But the congress, which runs parallel to UN sponsored talks, had a muddled inception after 80 delegates opposing the Syrian regime refused to leave the airport on arrival from Turkey late on Monday.

The delegates were offended by the presence of the Syrian state’s flag and emblem. They claimed they had to boycott the congress because of broken promises.

“We were surprised [upon arrival to Sochi] to see that none of the promises put to us were made,” Ahmed Tomah, the head of the Syrian delegation to Russia said. "We had agreed that all flyers that have references to the regime would be removed and for the bombardment [of opposition held areas] to stop before we travel,” he said.

The following day the opposition members went back to Turkey in protest.

Opponents of the Syrian regime are pushing for the ouster of president Bashar Al Assad, who they accuse of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

A diplomatic source told The National that "the Turkish delegation has been asked to represent the opposition at the talks."

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke twice on Tuesday morning in a bid to resolve the issue, Artyom Kozhin of the Russian foreign ministry said.

Meanwhile, the country's main opposition group, the Syrian Negotiation Commission, decided last week to boycott the congress following two days of UN-led talks in Vienna.

"The Russians of course want a deal on Assad's terms. That's a bitter pill for many in the opposition to swallow, and that's why you are seeing the SNC boycotting the summit," Andrew Parasiliti, director of global policy think tank RAND Corporation told The National.

“Sochi makes clear, if it wasn’t already, that the road to a political solution in Syria goes through Tehran, Ankara, and Moscow,” Mr Parasiliti said.

Rebel backer Turkey is co-sponsoring the congress with Iran - who supports Mr Al Assad's regime.

The morning took another shaky turn after reports emerged of a dispute between UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and Russian officials.

However, a representative from Mr de Mistura's office told The National "the envoy was consulting with the relevant interlocutors, and will attend the opening ceremony of the congress."

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said he had decided to send his representative because the congress could provide an “important contribution” to a UN-led Syria solution.


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Western powers regard the talks with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine UN backed talks, seeking to ultimately carve out a settlement in favour of Mr Al Assad.

The United States, Britain and France stayed away because of what they said was the Syrian government's refusal to properly engage.

“The resolution of this crisis will happen urgently through a solution under United Nations auspices in Geneva. France has that as an immediate objective. It's not happening in Sochi, it must happen in Geneva," said France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

During the opening message, Mr Lavrov was interrupted by participants who accused Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with air strikes.

The foreign minister told the delegates to let him finish speaking, assuring them they would have their own say later on Tuesday.

Mr Lavrov read out a message from president Vladimir Putin that “today all the conditions are in place to turn this tragic page in Syria’s history, which is why Russia is holding this congress.”

He said that Moscow has worked to have this conference represent more Syrians, adding that "only the Syrian people have the right to determine their future."

Syrian government official Ghassan Al Qalaa said "I call upon you in the name of millions of Syrians to have mercy upon our country."

Meanwhile, in Syria, intense clashes erupted on the hilly territory of Barsaya near Afrin, as Kurdish fighters tried to enter the area a day after it was captured by Turkish troops.

Ankara has stepped up its campaign with heavy shelling against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

Syria's main Kurdish groups has also declined to attend the conference in Sochi saying it holds Russia responsible for the Turkish offensive.