Syria will con­tinue to bleed even af­ter Sochi

Arab News - - OPINION - OsaMa al sharif | spe­cial to arab News

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

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