Russia’s new Syrian peace congress thrown into doubt

JEDDAH: A Russian-sponsored reconciliation conference on Syria next month was cast into doubt on Sunday after Syrian opposition activists rejected Moscow’s conditions for their attendance.

The Congress for National Dialogue, planned for the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Jan. 29-30, is supposed to involve all the parties in the Syrian conflict in charting a course for the country’s future.

However, Russia has ruled out the participation of any group that insists on the removal of President Bashar Assad, whose regime it supports. The opposition refuses to accept that condition.

“Our position is clear that we reject any role by the Assad regime in the future of Syria and we will not accept any party telling us what or what not to discuss,” Hisham Marwa, a representative of Syria’s opposition High Negotiations Committee, told Arab News.

“The Russians want to implement their vision of resolving the Syrian crisis according to what serves their and the Syrian regime’s interests.

“Assad and his regime have the blood of innocent Syrian people on their hands, and he must be tried and held accountable for his crimes, not rewarded.

“It is the Syrian people who decide their own future and the nature of any future political system to rule their country, and not the Russians or the Iranians.”

Opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi told Arab News the exact nature of the Sochi congress was not yet known. “Its content is not clear. Its goals and aims are not yet set. Attendance is not clear. Invitations are not sent.”

He said Russia may also demand that those who attended the Sochi talks could not discuss the Russian military presence in Syria.

Bahia Mardini, an opposition figure based in London, said Russia was preparing to control the political situation in Syria through Sochi.

“This conference is seen by them as the gate to legitimize the Russian occupation of Syria and to float or reproduce the Assad regime as an agent of Russia in Syria,” Mardini, a journalist and human rights activist who fled regime persecution, told Arab News.

“The birth of Sochi means the burial of Geneva and risks meaning other countries that do want to see democracy at risk turning into mere observers.

“In this sense, it is necessary to reactivate the political solution under an international umbrella and the UN, and this is what we have always asked for.”

She also criticized the Syrian regime and Russia for the suffering in Eastern Ghouta, and said the UN Security Council “must look for the earliest opportunity to intervene to rescue civilians from bombing and starvation.”

The Assad regime has refused to allow hundreds of residents to leave the besieged Damascus suburb, where about 400,000 people live, to reach hospitals just minutes away.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government was working with Russia to try to move people to safety. About 500 people, including 170 women and children, were in urgent need of humanitarian or medical assistance, he said. “We want to take them and provide them with treatment and care in our country.”

The Sochi congress, if it takes place, would open up a fourth track of negotiations between parties to the conflict. The UN’s own Geneva program has been supplemented by the “technical” talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey. They announced the date for the Sochi congress last Friday after the latest round of talks in Astana.

Russia periodically opens a third track through Cairo. Egypt has provided a base to Syrian reformists seen as acceptable to the Damascus government.

“The United Nations maintains its view that any political initiative by international actors should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the mandated political process under the United Nations in Geneva,” UN Special Envoy Syria Staffan de Mistura said after the Astana talks.

“The special envoy will be consulting the secretary-general once he has received all the information required.”

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