No breakthrough for Syria in Sochi

The peace talks in Sochi were supposed to show that dialogue is possible. According to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, they were to yield a breakthrough and prove that all sides of the conflict can start a discussion. Unlike the talks in Geneva (ongoing since 2012), the Sochi negotiations were also supposed to be effective. The Russian media were describing the Syrian National Congress with similar hopes. The reality, however, proved to be different.

The congress took place on January 30th in Sochi, a resort by the Black Sea. 1500 delegates discussed how the war-torn country could be rebuilt from the conflict that has lasted 7 years, claimed 400,000 victims and forced 11 million people to flee their homes.

Boycotts and protests

Eventually, however, everything went wrong. The conference, which was supposed to last two days, was at the last moment shortened to just one. Also, the proceedings began with a two-hour delay. Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov, read a letter from President Putin, urging to “turn the tragic page of Syria’s history”. At the same time, a part of the delegates screamed that Russia is responsible for the deaths of civilians in Syria. Others responded in shouting pro-Russian slogans. Finally, Lavrov asked all the parties to let him finish.

A big part of the delegates at the congress represented the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Representatives of the opposition, who took part in the conference, are not involved in military action and are closely associated with the government. All the others have mostly boycotted the conference in Sochi. There were also some who came but were hardly interested in the proceedings. 83 delegates have refused to participate in the meeting when they noticed official Syrian flags hanging in the venue (they only recognise the version of the flag introduced at the beginning of 2011 revolution). After a day spent at the airport they came back to Turkey, claiming that the conference was supposed to include only neutral symbols that would not displease any of the parties.

None of the parties of the Syrian conflict expected that the congress will actually lead to a breakthrough. Their representatives hoped, however, that all the key parties of the conflict will finally have a chance to speak out. Lavrov said that the fact that “two or three groups” did not participate in the conference is “not a reason to protest”.

However, no representatives of other countries involved in the conflict – the United States, the United Kingdom of France have showed up in Sochi either. On January 30th, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, said that the resolution of this conflict can be achieved only during talks “under the auspices of the UN” and that it has to happen in Geneva, not in Sochi.

47 victims on one day

The representatives of the region of northern Syria, inhabited mainly by the Kurds, refused to attend the congress. They decided to boycott it after Turkey attacked the Kurd-controlled region of Afrin on January 20th. The operation began with air-raids and the Turkish planes were allowed to enter the area over the region thanks to a permission granted by Russia. The Kurds felt cheated by the Russians, with whom they have recently tightened relationships and accused them that, similarly to the government in Ankara, they have blood on their hands. The areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) make up more than one-fifth of Syria.

The clashes around Afrin is not the only example of military actions in that country. The regime in Idlib leads an offensive against the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham coalition. On February 3rd, the militants of this group have shot down a Russian attack aircraft Su-25. The pilot catapulted himself but was subsequently killed. After an exchange of fire he committed a suicide attack with a grenade, most likely to avoid becoming a prisoner of war.

On the other hand, the bombs dropped by the Russian planes are falling on the civilian population.
The siege of eastern Ghouta laid by the regime forces has been ongoing since April 2013. This town has almost 400,000 inhabitants and is located close to the capital city of Damascus. The situation in Ghouta is considered to be one of the worst humanitarian crises since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy to Syria, described the condition in the region as “the epicenter of suffering”.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 47 people were killed in various parts of Syria only on February 3rd.

To Sochi via Geneva

Ultimately, however, the Sochi congress, has only stressed the importance of Geneva talks, instead of replacing them. The delegates have elected a committee of 150 people who are tasked with drafting the new constitution. It is supposed to happen in Geneva. Sergey Lavrov said that the groups which were absent in Sochi will also be able to choose their representatives. Because of that the Geneva talks, although they have not produced the expected results, still remain the most promising solution of the conflict.

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