The much-anticipated Syrian national dialogue conference, scheduled for January 29 at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, might get postponed — yet again, according to numerous Syrian sources. The reasons are many but high on the list is the seemingly absolute insistence of President Vladimir Putin to get a fullhouse at Sochi — with no abstentions, vetoes, or absences from any of the warring Syrian factions. With the war on Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), coming to a rapid closure, Putin wants to hammer out a political endgame to the Syrian war at Sochi, tailor-made to his liking. This needs to be done before upcoming Russian presidential elections in mid-March, which coincides with the seventh anniversary of the Syrian conflict.
So far, most armed groups have been critical of Sochi, including the Free Syrian Army, claiming that Putin is dragging them to political suicide. They realise that it won’t lead to the creation of a transitional government or to the departure of President Bashar Al Assad, as they had dreamt of since 2011. Far from it, its only outcomes — at best — will be the establishment of a constitutional assembly to pen a new charter for Syria, based upon a Russian draft put forth two years ago.
It is still unclear whether the process will lead to a completely new constitution or to amendments to the present one, drafted back in 2012. During the last UN-mandated talks in Geneva in mid-December, it was decided that the constitutional assembly will be composed of 21 members, with 5-6 seats only for the Syrian Opposition.
Making it all the more difficult for them to swallow, the assembly will be created by Al Assad himself, say the Russians. Meaning, not only will they be deprived of two-thirds representation and veto power, but they will likely have to sign off painful concessions dictated by the Kremlin.
Once through with the constitution, reportedly by next summer, early parliamentary elections will take place in mid-2018 but presidential ones won’t happen before 2021, when Al Assad’s third term expires. Damascus, Moscow and Tehran insist that he would get to run for another two terms in 2021, claiming that any person wanting to run against him is welcome to do so.
This explains why many in the opposition have lashed out against Sochi, although the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) is still undecided on whether to attend or not.
In addition to insisting on a full house, with up to 1,500 Syrian representatives, the Russian Foreign Ministry wants maximum attendance from the international community, and will be inviting all Arab, EU and Asian and South American countries to attend, in addition to both the US and Iran.
During his meeting with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam last November, Putin got a green light to go ahead with Sochi, with the US president saying that he won’t stand in its way, only if Iran is invited to attend as an observer, rather than a decision-maker or guarantor, as it had been during the Astana process.
Putin is also insisting on official UN attendance, wanting to give Sochi maximum international legitimacy. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also remains undecided on whether to show up, demanding that Sochi is maintained as a one-time event and doesn’t drag into sequels like Geneva and Astana. He also wants the constitutional assembly to be created at the next round of Geneva talks on January 21, and for it to be endorsed at Sochi, whereas Russian diplomats are seeking for the assembly to see the light at Sochi, and to hold its first session at Geneva, sometime next February.
At Sochi, not Switzerland
Damascus, for its part, is insisting that the assembly needs to be created at Sochi and to hold its first round in Syria, rather than Switzerland. And finally, the Turks too are not that enthusiastic about Sochi, despite the warming of relations between Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
To make the event more attractive, Moscow has agreed to scrap the invitation to all Kurdish parties affiliated even if remotely to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).” The only Kurds Erdogan is willing to accept are those within the Kurdistan National Council, who operate under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Coalition.
Although Sochi is just around the corner, none of the above-mentioned issues have been settled as of early January.
The upcoming three weeks will be challenging for Russian diplomats, who are touring world capitals, trying to curb local and international fears of what the Syrian endgame will look like, while drumming up as much support as they can. For now, there are three obstacles: who will attend Sochi from the Syrian opposition, how much support will it get from the international community and the UN, and what will be the final say of regional powers like Iran and Turkey.
If they are not settled by end of the month, the Russian Foreign Ministry doesn’t mind scraping the date, postponing Sochi — for the third time — until next February. Although no date is final, what everybody is certain of is that it needs to happen before the Russian presidential elections in mid-March, given Putin’s insistence on marketing himself as the man who ended the Syrian war and came up with a political outcome that was signed off by all four corners of the globe.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.