Syria will continue to bleed even after Sochi
While the conference will be seen as a breakthrough by the Russians, who will be asserting their leadership role in Syria, it will not chart a path toward a political settlement.
THE Syrian regime has never had it so good. It has seen a total reversal of fortunes since it faced almost certain defeat in the late summer of 2015, with a Russian military intervention in September of that year providing a new lease of life. That was a game-changer then, in a military sense. Now the regime stands to reap the fruits of that intervention at Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, where about 1,500 Syrians, mostly loyalists to Damascus, started on Monday what Moscow has called the “Syrian National Dialogue Congress.”
Regardless of what Russia, Turkey and Iran, under whose auspices the meeting is taking place, hope to achieve from the conference, one issue will certainly not be on the agenda: The fate of President Bashar Assad. Otherwise, there will be speeches, debates, behind-the-scene consultations and a final communique. There will be a committee to write a new constitution for the country, and a bashful reference to UN resolutions, including 2254 on Syria. There might even be a commitment to the Geneva process, which after many rounds has achieved absolutely nothing.
The rehabilitation of the regime is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s immediate goal. Sochi will come to represent a victory lap for Putin, who, in less than three years, has been able to turn things around in the war-torn country and build an alliance with former foes. In the process, Moscow has bolstered its military presence on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean — a geopolitical feat for Russia, which has become a major regional player. Putin was also able to emphasize one basic principle: That only the Syrian people can decide their future. Russia has always pointed a warning finger towards Libya, where foreign powers helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, resulting in a raging civil war, anarchy, the rise of radicalism, and the collapse of the country’s institutions. Russia was not going to allow that to happen in Syria.
Ironically, that is precisely what has been happening in Syria. The Syrian uprising has been ruthlessly quashed by the regime, resulting in hundreds of thousands of mostly civilian deaths, the displacement of millions and the destruction of most of the country’s main cities and its infrastructure. To be fair, foreign powers did step in to finance and arm rebel groups, including those associated with Al-Qaeda. Syria became one large battlefield involving foreign extremists.
But, even as the delegates were arriving in Sochi, Syrian and Russian jets were pounding targets in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib province. Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters were also pushing towards Kurdish-held Afrin in an operation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to extend to the SyrianIraqi border. Meanwhile, US troops were holding their positions in northeastern Syria and vowing to stand by their Syrian Kurdish allies. The US presence in Syria, condemned by Damascus and Moscow, has raised fears of a de facto partition.
The all-Syria congress in Sochi is also missing some important bodies that claim to represent most, if not all, Syrians. The main opposition bloc, the Syrian Negotiations Commission, voted to boycott the conference, although some members will be present on an individual basis. France and the US have opted not to attend, but UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura will be there, as well as representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq. The Kurds, who are facing the Turkish onslaught, will not be in Sochi.
The rest of those attending are basically regime loyalists and, in that sense, the so-called dialogue will be mostly one-sided. Any agreements that come out of the meeting will be denounced as illegitimate by the opposition.
So, while the Sochi meeting will be seen as a breakthrough by the Russians, who will be asserting their leadership role in Syria, it will hardly push toward national reconciliation or chart a path toward a political settlement. For the regime, Sochi will become the only acceptable forum to negotiate the future of the country; thus rendering the Geneva process obsolete.
Regardless of what the Russians hope to achieve in Sochi, they must realize — at some stage in the future — that, without US and European involvement and especially a UN role, no political settlement will ever be able to address a number of fundamental and intricate issues. These include a long-term foreign presence in Syria, rebuilding the country, the return of refugees and the displaced, and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. No genuine national reconciliation can be achieved without dealing with these issues. To paper over the cracks will not achieve healing or any eventual restoration of normalcy in Syria.
Putin will soon discover that a military intervention, such as the one he undertook in Syria, differs dramatically from forcing a superficial political formula. Syria will continue to bleed even after Sochi.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010