Lavrov wants UN to play key role in re­solv­ing Syr­ian cri­sis

Main Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups boy­cott Sochi talks


SOCHI: Rus­sia’s show­piece con­gress aimed at bring­ing Syria’s seven-year war to an end opened on Tues­day de­spite boy­cotts by the main op­po­si­tion group and Kurds, as well as rebels pulling out at the last minute.

Moscow has in­vited 1,600 del­e­gates to the meet­ing in the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi as part of a broader push to con­sol­i­date its in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East and start ham­mer­ing out a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the con­flict.

An open­ing speech by Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov, de­layed by two hours be­cause of on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, was in­ter­rupted both by cries of “Long live Rus­sia!” and an­gry heck­ling from Syr­ian del­e­gates.

Read­ing out a let­ter from Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, Lavrov called for the UN to play a lead­ing role in any po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, fol­low­ing fears among Western pow­ers that Rus­sia is seek­ing to un­der­mine sep­a­rate UN-backed talks with a view to carv­ing out a deal that strength­ens its ally Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

The main aim of the talks is to es­tab­lish a com­mit­tee to cre­ate a post-war con­sti­tu­tion for Syria with UN back­ing, ac­cord­ing to a draft state­ment seen by AFP.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of op­po­si­tion groups flew into Sochi from Turkey late Mon­day but re­fused to leave the air­port af­ter see­ing the sym­bol of the con­gress fea­tured only the Syr­ian regime flag, a source said.

The source told AFP that Rus­sian hosts had promised to change the sym­bol, which was dis­played on posters in the air­port as well as bill­boards on the road to­ward Sochi, and in the con­gress hall it­self.

Lavrov and Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Mev­lut Cavu­soglu spoke twice on Tues­day morn­ing in a bid to re­solve the is­sue, Ar­tyom Kozhin of the Rus­sian for­eign min­istry said.

But af­ter al­most 12 hours of ne­go­ti­a­tions some 80 op­po­si­tion fig­ures, politi­cians and ac­tivists re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the con­gress and pre­pared to re­turn to Turkey, said op­po­si­tion mem­ber Ah­mad Al-Saoud.

Moscow said Syr­ian so­ci­ety would be fully rep­re­sented at the meet­ing — the first of its kind held in Rus­sia — but al­most all con­firmed are from either As­sad's rul­ing Baath Party, al­lied move­ments or the regime's “tol­er­ated op­po­si­tion.”

The Syr­ian Ne­go­ti­a­tion Com­mis­sion (SNC), the coun­try's main op­po­si­tion group, said fol­low­ing two days of UN-led talks in Vienna last week it would not at­tend the Sochi con­gress.

The SNC ac­cused As­sad and his Rus­sian back­ers of con­tin­u­ing to rely on mil­i­tary might and show­ing no will­ing­ness to en­ter into hon­est ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Au­thor­i­ties from Syria's Kur­dish au­tonomous re­gion said at the week­end they would also boy­cott the event be­cause of the on­go­ing Turk­ish of­fen­sive on the Kur­dish en­clave of Afrin.

Turkey, which sup­ports Syr­ian op­po­si­tion vy­ing for As­sad's oust­ing, is cospon­sor­ing the con­gress along with regime-backer Iran.

Mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion and some Kurds would at­tend in an in­di­vid­ual ca­pac­ity, the Krem­lin's spe­cial en­voy on the Syria peace process Alexan­der Lavren­tyev said ear­lier.

The UN's Syria peace ne­go­tia­tor Staffan de Mis­tura was at the event de­spite last-minute ques­tions over whether he would at­tend.

The US State Depart­ment on Mon­day said it would not send ob­servers to the Sochi con­fer­ence, say­ing “our col­lec­tive fo­cus must re­main on the UN-led po­lit­i­cal process.”

But Mo­han­nad Dleikan, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion's so­called Moscow Group, which is at­tend­ing Sochi but has been ac­cused by the main­stream op­po­si­tion of toe­ing a more con­cil­ia­tory line on As­sad's fu­ture, said the aims of the talks were the same as those of the UN.

“If there is a con­sen­sus in Sochi, that will be a se­ri­ous mes­sage to those in Geneva, whether it be the op­po­si­tion or the regime,” he told AFP from Beirut.

“We have ob­tained suf­fi­cient guar­an­tees that this process will sup­port Geneva, it will not act as an al­ter­na­tive.”

Rus­sia, which has spear­headed sev­eral rounds of talks from the start of last year in Kaza­khstan's As­tana, ini­tially hoped to con­vene the con­gress in Sochi last Novem­ber but those ef­forts col­lapsed fol­low­ing a lack of agree­ment among co-spon­sors.

Moscow's de­ci­sion to launch a bomb­ing cam­paign to sup­port As­sad in Septem­ber 2015 — Rus­sia's first ma­jor mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion abroad since Soviet troops with­drew from Afghanistan in 1989 — is widely seen as a turn­ing point in the multi-front con­flict that helped shore up the Syr­ian pres­i­dent.

The Syr­ian war, in which more than 340,000 peo­ple have died and mil­lions more been dis­placed, be­gan in 2011 as the regime crushed anti-gov­ern­ment protests.

Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov speaks at a ses­sion of the Syr­ian Con­gress of Na­tional Di­a­logue in the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi in Rus­sia on Tues­day. (Reuters)

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