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Russia’s Syria peace strategy in question after Sochi talks

By AFP - Jan 31,2018 - Last updated at Jan 31,2018

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, on Tuesday. (Reuters photo)

MOSCOW — Hastily organised, snubbed by the Syrian opposition and the Kurds, Russia's Syria peace talks achieved little and exposed the limits of Moscow's efforts to find a solution to the seven year Syrian conflict, analysts say.

Regime backer Russia hosted the so-called Syria congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday in which participants agreed on creating a commission to rewrite the war-torn country's constitution. 

But despite Moscow insisting Syrian society would be fully represented at the meeting, almost all of the 1,400 delegates were pro-regime. 

"This was a failed Moscow project with the aim of creating an instrument to keep [Bashar Al] Assad [in power]," said Alexei Malashenko, head of research at Moscow's Institute for the Dialogue of Civilisations. 

"All talk of a new constitution has the intent of keeping Assad and therefore Russian presence in Syria," he added. 

Malashenko said the Sochi talks were "badly organised" and that "the most important thing is who did not turn up". 

On the eve of the talks, the main opposition group — the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SCN) — and the Kurdish minority said they would boycott the event. 

Some rebel representatives who had flown in from Turkey said they would go no further than Sochi's airport because the conference logo featured only regime flags, eventually going directly back to Turkey. 

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova however said this "did not dampen the atmosphere" of the talks. 




"In terms of credibility of the people represented, it was quite ridiculous," said Thomas Pierret, an analyst at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris.

He said that the Damascus regime and its allies never envisaged the peace process as a "solution of negotiation and compromise". 

But Pierret said the presence of the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura "saved" the Sochi talks. 

"Russia's success was to have de Mistura on board," he said. "He reminded them that the talks should stay in the UN format but he also spoke a lot about the issue of constitutional reform." 

In his closing remarks, de Misutra said the UN would lead efforts to form the constitutional committee, but did not specify how this would happen. A ninth round of UN-backed talks ended in Vienna last week without the warring sides having met face to face. 

Hasni Abidi, director of Geneva's Centre of Research on the Arab World, said Sochi showed "the limits of Russian diplomacy" while demonstrating the centrality of the UN-led Geneva talks. 

"It showed that the multilateral approach followed by Geneva is the only format to engage in serious discussion," said Abidi.

The UN, he said, is demanding that Russia and Iran put pressure on the regime to take part in future negotiations. This, he said, puts the West in an "embarrassing" position at times. 

"They know they can't diverge from Moscow too much because they need them for the Geneva process to succeed," Abidi said. 


'Propaganda success' 


Despite "not moving [towards] the settlement by an inch", Russian independent analyst Vladimir Frolov said the Sochi talks were a "success in propaganda terms" for both Moscow and Damascus. 

"They seek to legitimise a substitute for the real talks with a fake opposition that has no following on the ground," he said. 

On Thursday, an editorial in Syria's pro-Assad paper Al Baath said the Sochi talks "confirmed that the Russian-led political process is the best way to put an end to the bloodshed" in Syria. It added that Syrians "had lost faith in the UN-led" talks. 

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition spokesman Yehia Al Aridi, said the Sochi congress "unveiled the Russian intention of rehabilitating the regime". 


"The constitutional question is one of the essential points, but there is also the electoral process and political transition that the Russians ignored with arrogance," Al Aridi said. 

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