The Russian-sponsored Syrian National Dialogue Congress (SNDG) is set to begin in the Black Sea resort city Sochi on Tuesday, but questions still remain as to how many participants from the previously declared 1,600 delegates will attend the meeting.
What is certain is that the official Syrian opposition – the Syrian Negotiations Commission and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – will not attend the congress.
The prospect of hosting the SNDG in Sochi has been discussed since October 2017, when Russian President Vladimir Putin first proposed the idea. The peace talks, however, were postponed several times because the Kremlin had to persuade its partners – Iran and Turkey – to take part in the conference.
Russia also consulted with the UN and Syrian opposition in an effort to get the talks off the ground.
While both Turkey and Iran have in the past agreed to back the meeting and send representatives to discuss proposals with UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the conference lacks its most crucial element – legitimacy.
The Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), Syria’s umbrella opposition group backed by Saudi Arabia, refused to participate in the conference, saying it was designed to undermine UN-sponsored peace talks.
Turkey’s massive military incursion into northern Syria, a stronghold of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units – or YPG – and Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, made the participation of Kurdish delegates impossible. That leaves one of the largest ethnic groups in Syria out even before the conference begins and calls into question the legitimacy of a planned statement that was to be jointly endorsed by all of the participating parties and call for constitutional reform in the war-torn country.
The key question ahead of the conference will be whether the handful of delegates on hand can find enough common ground to lay the groundwork for an eventual settlement and an end to the nearly sever-year-old war.
That outcome will, however, be in doubt with so many key players boycotting the conference and the amount of bitter sentiment built up between the factions after so many failed attempts to end the conflict through the UN’s Geneva talks.