Hoping to capitalise on his military successes in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin organised a conference in Russia’s Black Sea resort city Sochi on Tuesday that was aimed at showcasing Moscow’s influence over Middle East affairs.
Billed as the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, the gathering’s primary aim was the establishment of a mechanism for drafting a new Syrian constitution. The roughly 1,500 participants expressed hope that they could establish committees charged with studying changes to the existing Syrian Constitution.
The summit, however, lost most of its legitimacy before it had a chance to begin, as key actors in the conflict – namely the Kurds – refused to participate.
The talks were dealt a severe blow when the leadership of the Syrian opposition opted to boycott the summit, while the United States, UK, and France also declined to attend due to Syrian President Basha al-Assad’s refusal to properly engage all of the parties involved in the war.
The West backs a separate UN-mediated peace process, which has so far also failed to find a resolution to end the fighting in the bloody seven-year-old war.
The Sochi conference limped to its end with a final watered-down statement that endorsed the country’s territorial integrity and called for self-determination through democratic elections but failed to make any reference as to the fate of Assad.
Assad has ruled Syria since 2000 when he took over the presidency from his father, Hafez, and has carried out a genocidal campaign of bombings and chemical weapons attacks against his own people since the war began in 2011.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov read out a statement from Putin saying the conditions on the ground gave Syria the opportunity to move beyond “this tragic page of its history”. His comments were met with boos from several participants in the audience, who accuse Russia of bombing scores civilians during its air strikes against anti-Assad forces.
In a further embarrassing setback, a group of delegates that included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey refused to leave Sochi’s airport until Syrian government flags and emblems, which they said were offensive, were removed.
Government delegations from Turkey and Iran were present at the Congress, as was UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. The presence of Turkey – the backer of various anti-Assad rebel groups – and Iran, who backs the regime along with Russia, was a diplomatic win for Moscow, though not nearly as significant as the Kremlin could have hoped for due to the Western boycott.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already raised the possibility of a joint initiative with Moscow but has had to urge Russia and Turkey to focus on fighting ISIS instead of targeting moderate rebel groups and Syrian Kurds.
Putin has been trying to steal the show from Kazakhstan’s ageing president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who organised an earlier Russia-sponsored round of talks on Syria in the Kazakh capital Astana. Convinced that Kazakhstan was trying to prove its political independence from Moscow by organizing the series of Astana Syria peace talks, which were also boycotted by most of the Syrian opposition, Putin decided to move the negotiations to Sochi.
Putin spoke with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to discuss the outcome of the conference and the two agreed that the foes-turned-allies were satisfied with the results of the talks in Sochi and also discussed their cooperation in maintaining de-escalation zones in Syria.
Turkey and Russia each want to withdraw from the fighting in Syria. The Kremlin has called on member countries of the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States – nine of the former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan – to consider providing military observers to be deployed to potential de-escalation zones.
Russian military officials are holding talks with their colleagues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan about the potential deployment of peacekeepers to Syria. Astana’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov has insisted that “Kazakhstan is not negotiating with anyone about the possibility of sending troops to Syria.”
Kazakhstan’s refusal to accept Russia’s CIS military intervention proposal stems from President Nazarbayev’s concerns that deploying Kazakh troops into conflict zones could cause political instability inside his own country.