Syria talks: Could Sochi bring peace via new track?

Russia-backed Syria talks kick off in Sochi, as experts warn against undermining years of UN-brokered peace efforts.

Russian President Putin, Defence Minister Shoigu and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province
The new diplomatic track is meant to examine the key questions on Syria's national agenda [File: Reuters]

Russian-sponsored diplomatic talks over the future of Syria have begun in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, but experts predict the summit will merely attempt to enforce a political solution that is in line with the Syrian government’s agenda.

The two-day conference that started on Monday has been given the name “Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue”. It will be the first round of negotiations to take place in Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s main ally.

The United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura will be attending the talks, along with representatives from the Syrian, Iranian and Turkish governments.

Meanwhile, the main opposition bloc – the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), also known as the Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), announced it will boycott the conference, claiming it is an attempt to undercut the United Nations’ (UN) effort to broker a deal.

But several individuals with the Moscow platform – a dissident faction of the opposition, will be in attendance.

The new track is meant to examine the key questions on Syria’s national agenda.

“First of all, that is the drawing-up of a framework for the future structure of the state, the adoption of a new constitution, and, on the basis of that, the holding of elections under United Nations supervision,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said alongside his Iranian and Turkish counterparts last November. 

Like the two main negotiation tracks that are attempting to bring an end to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict – experts say the Sochi talks will likely be in vain. 

History of negotiations 

From UN-sponsored talks in Geneva to Russian-Turkish-backed talks in Astana, government representatives and armed opposition groups have traded blame, stormed out of meetings, and disagreed on proposed resolutions. 

The main aims of the two main tracks have been to achieve a political transition and a military ceasefire in Syria, but the main sticking point has been the fate of Assad.

While the Syrian government has consistently refused to agree to Assad stepping down, the armed opposition says Assad’s removal is a prerequisite to peace.

Talks for the past two years have utilised a two-year-old UNSC resolution endorsed by De Mistura as the basis for achieving a political transition plan – and so will the Sochi conference. 

But experts like Omar Kouch, a Syrian political analyst based in Turkey, believe that the Sochi talks will “completely differ” from the Geneva one.

“In fact, there are efforts to make this [Sochi] track the alternative one, considering that it has stolen two of the so-called “baskets” from what De Mistura proposed during the Geneva talks,” he told Al Jazeera, referencing the constitution and the elections. 

“So if the Russians are serious about supporting the Geneva track, then they would have endorsed these things in Geneva by urging the regime to engage in the negotiation process,” Kouch added. 

An attempt to hijack a potential political path is under way in Sochi, Kouch believes, who says that a military confrontation on the ground has already been “taken advantage of” by the Syrian government, referencing a recently violated ceasefire agreement in Eastern Ghouta, the last remaining rebel stronghold near Damascus.

“It was an attempt to gain control over more territory… If anything, fighting has intensified over the past few days,” said Kouch.

Despite the ongoing battle, both the Assad government and Russia have ignored repeated calls by UN to allow for the free movement of the ill and injured. 

With Moscow and Tehran’s military support, the government has gained more leverage in its negotiating position, further weakening the opposition in their plight to overthrow Assad. 

According to Kouch, only 10 opposition representatives, aligned with the Assad government, have agreed to attend the latest talks. 

There are various divisions within the opposition, consisting of at least seven factions. De Mistura had previously stressed the importance of the groups uniting in negotiations with the Syrian government. 

The main divide within the opposition has been between the SNC and two dissident groups, the Moscow and Cairo platforms. These groups maintain close ties to Russia and are not perceived as a threat by the Assad government, differentiating them from the HNC, which has repeatedly called for the dismantling of the regime as a premise for peace. 

‘Dangerous’ new narrative

Still, with a fragmented opposition, Kouch does not foresee a scenario in which the HNC is forced into accepting a solution that may come out of the two-day meeting. 

“It [Sochi] is also a dangerous attempt at turning the Syrian question into a matter of internal conflict. It started as a people’s revolution calling for freedom and dignity, now turned into a proxy war… They want to make it seem as if it’s a matter of internal conflict,” said Kouch. 

Discussions over elections in the government’s framework do not include a presidential one, which is inherently problematic according to Kouch. 

“It [the regime] considers the presidential elections a red line that no one is allowed to cross,” he said, blaming the vagueness of UNSC 2254. 

“Every side interprets it [the resolution] the way they see fit.” 

Similarly, Aron Lund, a Syria expert and Century Foundation fellow, believes that Russia is trying push Syria toward a diplomatic framework more in tune with military realities – both in Astana and in Sochi.

“Because it makes more sense and because they obviously prefer a peace process structured around the fact that their ally is winning,” Lund told Al Jazeera. 

“For Russia, it is a way to drag Turkey and various opposition groups into a process that isn’t unfavorable to their ally, Assad, which the Geneva talks are by design.” 

Turkey‘s involvement in the Astana talks helped in rapidly weakening the opposition, said Lund, who expects the Sochi talks to play a similar role. 

He also believes that the UN is responsible for not achieving a political solution. 

“The Geneva peace talks aren’t really peace talks. They’re transition talks,” said Lund.

“Instead of the UN trying to reconcile warring sides and end the fighting in keeping with whatever balance of power existed in the country, you had a process shaped by the understanding of what had just happened in Tunisia and Egypt – regime removal,” he explained. 

As in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Syria started with peaceful anti-government demonstrations in March 2011. It then escalated into a full-blown proxy war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives and driven about half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million from their homes.

“So by design, the Geneva process can’t end until the UN acknowledges that Syria’s pre-2011 regime is gone,” Lund said. 

‘Stamp of approval’

The conference is unlikely to propose a concrete plan, and the lack of opposition representatives had many questioning the summit’s credibility.

“They may form a constitutional committee… And an electoral committee, which will be a large and loose entity of people who are close to the regime,” Kouch predicted.

However, Lund noted that “there’s not going to be a mutually agreed end to the war.”

“The Russians wanted a lot of opposition actors involved to give this a stamp of approval, and Turkey, which has much of the opposition on a leash, doesn’t seem to be playing along,” said Lund. 

“But I’m sure that if this round fails, they’ll just try again.”

Source: Al Jazeera