Russia’s Syria talks in Sochi are destined for failure

Russia cannot be accepted as an honest broker or neutral convener for discussions pertaining to Syria’s future.

Putin Reuters
Putin seems to be driven by a desire to tout a Sochi "breakthrough” to his people ahead of Russian Presidential elections in March, writes Al-Achi [Reuters]

Geneva, Astana and now Sochi are cities that most Syrians have never visited, but they have each become synonymous with fraught international discussions on the future of our country. The latest addition to the list, Russia’s coastal Black Sea resort Sochi, adds more complexity to the discussion. Russia has long sought to host a”Syrian National Dialogue Congress” in Sochi to discuss Syria’s future constitution. For myself and many other Syrians, an inclusive national dialogue is indeed a crucial transitioning step towards a lasting and justice-based peace agreement. Nevertheless, the January 30 Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi will, in all certainty, fail to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people – and I have three reasons why. 

The first is simply that Russia cannot be accepted as an honest broker or neutral convener for discussions pertaining to Syria’s future. Russia remains the main military backer of the Syrian regime and while Sochi may boast luxurious Black Sea resorts, many Syrians cannot but experience chills when told they must discuss the future of their country there. How can we expect to feel safe to negotiate freely if we are guests in a country that has given vital support to the Assad regime’s brutal onslaught against his own people?  

There is not even a pretence of neutrality in Russia’s attempt to hijack the political process: The preliminary invitations to the Syrian National Dialogue Conference were sent by a Russian Army Lieutenant. The invitation card asked to confirm attendance in Russian or English, not in Arabic or Kurdish, the two main languages spoken in Syria. This hardly gives the impression that Syrians are in control of shaping their country’s future.  

Sochi is completely out of sync with multilateral efforts to mediate the crisis which are based in Geneva under UN auspices.


The second reason Sochi is flawed is that it will not be truly inclusive. Not all parts of Syrian society are invited. For example, according to Russia, Kurdish representatives were invited to Sochi on Monday but it’s not at all clear which Kurdish officials were invited or if they will attend. Denying Kurdish communities’ participation in shaping Syria’s future would mark a continuation of the decades-long injustice and alienation of the Kurdish citizens of Syria, and would undermine the aspirations of every free Syrian working towards a democratic and inclusive transition.  

The third reason is that Sochi is completely out of sync with multilateral efforts to mediate the crisis which are based in Geneva under UN auspices. Talks facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva have not borne much fruit, but this is more because of the Syrian government’s refusal to negotiate than any systemic problem with the mediation. Moscow has already launched a parallel platform to the UN-led Geneva process in Astana, Kazakhstan, where Iran, Turkey and Russia convened to discuss”de-escalation” and humanitarian access. The failure of this forum is depressingly summed up by Russia’s active military support to Assad’s brutal offensive against the very”de-escalation areas” it has established in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. 

The Russian line is that Sochi will breathe new life into Geneva. But it is no secret that Russia wants a departure from the UN-led process so that they will have more control over the outcome. By focusing on Syria’s constitution before governance issues, Russia is already seeking to manipulate the outcome by putting the cart before the horse. According to UN Resolution 2254, a political transition will be achieved by establishing a credible and inclusive governance and then by developing a new constitution which, in turn, will allow free and fair elections to take place. A departure from this sequence carries grave risks to the credibility and viability of a political transition. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a concern for Putin, who seems more driven by a desire to tout a Sochi “breakthrough” to his people leading up to Russian Presidential elections in March.  

For all these reasons, I look with great suspicion at the Sochi talks on Sunday and call on the UN and other influential countries – including Russia – to shift the much-needed “Syria national dialogue” to a neutral location led by the United Nations.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.