Russia to hold Syria ‘congress’ in Sochi despite Syrian opposition’s concerns

Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev [R] shakes hands wit Syria's Bashar Jaafari. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Mediation for peace.

The seventh round of Syria talks in Astana ended on Tuesday (31 October) with an agreement between the three “guarantor states” (Russia, Iran and Turkey) for a “congress of national dialogue” to be held in Sochi, despite reservations from the Syrian opposition. EURACTIV reports from Astana.

The Kazakh government is offering Astana as a neutral venue and “a natural home” for peace negotiations on Syria. The Astana talks are no substitute for the Geneva peace talks but seek to supplement them by making progress mainly on humanitarian issues.

EU is not represented at the Astana talks. Around the table are the three guarantors of a nationwide Syrian ceasefire regime, the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition represented by a dozen of opposition groups, plus the observers, namely the UN, the USA and Jordan.

Turkey backs the opposition while Russia and Iran support Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Iran’s delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Russia’s by the country’s Special Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, and Turkey by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal.

The Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, represents the Syrian government while the chief of General Staff of the so-called Syrian Free Army is heading a delegation of the armed opposition, including groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Al-Sham army and the Central Division.

The US was represented by Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield. UN’s special envoy for the Syria crisis Staffan de Mistura did not come this time and the UN was represented by Milos Strugar.

At a previous Astana meeting on 4 May, the guarantor countries had agreed to establish “de-escalation zones” in Syria. The zones would cover the city of Idlib and certain parts of Latakia, Homs, Aleppo and Hama as well as Damascus, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa and Quneitra. The fourth one in the Idlib province was agreed at the sixth meeting in  September.

The main issues of the seventh round were humanitarian access, demining, exchange of prisoners and the dead and search for the missing persons.

But diplomats told EURACTIV that the main prize for the Russians was to obtain a “congress of the Syrian people” to be held under their auspices. Reportedly, Moscow’s initial idea was to hold the congress in their military base of Hmeimine, but it eventually agreed to host it in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Russia’s Lavrentiev was quoted as saying that his country may host talks between Syrian groups next month, with the goal of working on a new constitution for the war-battered country.

A two-page Joint Statement by the guarantor countries says the Russian proposal to hold the congress would be discussed with the UN-led Geneva process, without further details. The statement also emphasises the need for the conflicting parties to release detainees, hand over dead bodies and help identify the missing persons.

It also “underlines the necessity” to increase humanitarian aid to Syria, and “to provide rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all those in need”.

In successive press conferences, the Syrian government expressed support, while the armed Syrian opposition criticised the agreement.

Bashar Jaafari took a strong aim at Turkey, saying that its troops and tanks had entered the Syrian territory with the help of Al-Nusra, internationally acknowledged as a terrorist organisation. He called this action “an act of aggression”. He later said that the military presence of America was “also an aggression”.

Asked about the proposed congress of the national dialogue, Jaffari said the government in Syria was open to any possibilities for dialogue and that the initiative was timely.

The leader of the opposition delegation, Colonel Fateh Hassoun, slammed the push for a congress in Sochi, arguing that such initiatives were in fact a substitute for UN-led Geneva peace talks.

Ordinary people put hopes in EU

Syrian businessmen staying in the same hotel said they didn’t expect anything from talks that include the participation of Assad’s regime. Asked what be the right way to achieve peace, one of the businessmen said there was a need for the big powers to take serious action on the ground.

“Today Syria is for us occupied by more than one power. Today we are sitting here in a five-star hotel, but children are dying five kilometres from Damascus because of hunger. What are these talks doing about them? Nothing. This has been going on for six years, chemical weapons, all kinds of terrible deaths. What are they waiting for? “

Asked what he meant by “the big powers”, he said that Russia was a country occupying Syria, and his country was actually under two powers: Russia and Iran. As for the US, he said that since the days of Obama, this country would take no action.

Asked about the EU, he said that the bloc could indeed play a critical role “if they wanted”. He said the Syrian people could no longer accept Russians, Americans and even some of the Arab nations but the EU would be “someone who can be trusted”.

“Syrians could not tolerate foreign presence on the ground as part of a deal, but some sort of EU presence would be accepted”, he said, declining to give his name.