Vladimir Putin fires a sport gun at a sports complex outside Sochi on March 9, 2012. Photo: AFP/Ria Novosti/Alexey Druzhinin

Over 1,500 Syrians are due to convene at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday, having been invited to attend a ‘National Dialogue Conference’ called by the Russian Government.

The letters of invitation were signed by Alexander Lavrentiev, on behalf of President Vladimir Putin, who came up with the idea late last year. The conference has now been postponed three times, due to Russian insistence on a full house at Sochi, with no absentees from any of the main players on the Syrian battlefield.

That requirement remains unmet. All member states of the Security Council will attend the conference, however, as will the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura. Regional states like Egypt, Jordan,
Lebanon, and Iraq have all been invited, along with Iran and Turkey, the two guarantors of the so-called Astana process (seven rounds of peace talks have been held in Astana to date).

Many are expecting Sochi to represent the final chapter of the seven-year old Syrian conflict — but is this realistic?

The conference will undoubtedly be a Kodak moment for Russian diplomats and Syrian regime figures who are in-line with Moscow’s endgame for the Syrian conflict. It’s unlikely that there will be any immediate breakthroughs, however, and sources are already discussing a follow-up meeting, possibly in Damascus, in the Spring.

A steering committee, composed of two members of the Syrian government and two from the opposition, has been created to administer the dialogue. Another committee will be created, and charged with drafting a new Syrian constitution based on a Russian draft put forth back in 2016. It is expected to complete its work by the summer, paving the way for early parliamentary elections – in which, theoretically, all Syrians will be able to participate – before the end of the year.

Nothing in the Sochi documents refers to the formation of a “transitional government body with full executive powers” that was agreed on by UN Security Council members in Geneva in the summer of 2012. And neither is there any mention of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, nor any calls for his departure.

Turkish forces are seen near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, in Syria, on January 23, 2018. Photo: Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Presidential elections won’t happen before Assad’s present term expires in 2021 – and Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus all insist that he must be entitled to run for a fourth term in three years’ time. All three countries claim that the “transition government” means a transition from war to peace, and from one constitution to another, rather than “regime change” as the Syrian opposition has been demanding since 2011.

Days ahead of the Sochi conference, Damascus flatly rejected a proposal put forth by De Mistura suggesting dilution of the president’s powers and empowerment of the premiership instead. The regime insists it will only engage in a political process once “every inch” of Syrian territory is liberated from the armed opposition and full sovereignty restored over the entire country.

Even the terms of the constitutional assembly are unclear. De Mistura wanted it to be created at Geneva, before Sochi, and to be composed of both camps in the Syrian conflict, whereas the Russians are determined for it to be born out of Sochi. Damascus is suggesting letting the present chamber of deputies handle the amendments in Damascus, with no input from abroad.

For these reasons, all mainstream opposition groups have decided to boycott the Sochi Conference. Opposition writer Michel Kilo described it as “high treason,” while the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) backed out on attending days ago. Ten of its members voted to attend, against 25 who said no.

Moscow simply cannot afford another delay: it is desperate to jumpstart a political process now that it has declared its war on Islamic State  finished and with presidential elections looming in Russia in March

The Kurds, an essential component of the Syrian Opposition, have been squeezed out of the conference at the request of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees them as “terrorists” allied to the outlawed PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will be absent from Sochi, as will the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who are totally immersed in their own war with the Turkish Army at the strategic city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River.

The only opposition elements attending Sochi will be the National Coordination Committees (NCC), a homegrown movement with close ties to Egypt, and members of the Moscow Platform, who are protégés of the Russian Government.

Regardless of who shows up, Sochi will proceed as planned, say Russian officials. Moscow simply cannot afford another delay: it is desperate to jumpstart a political process now that it has declared its war on Islamic State (ISIS) finished and with presidential elections looming in Russia in March.

Contrary to earlier expectations, the US will not obstruct the Sochi process. It will attend as an observer, seemingly un-offended by letting the Russians hammer out a political endgame in Syria that is tail0r made to Putin’s liking.

Since Donald Trump entered the White House in early 2017, he has increasingly surrendered to Putin’s vision on Syria, seeming more interested in the war on ISIS and clipping the wings of Iran and Hezbollah than in changing the regime in Damascus — a feat that has certainly been made more difficult by direct Russian military intervention since September 2015.

During his meeting with Putin in Vietnam, in November, Trump agreed to give Sochi a chance — an attitude shared by regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. If it actually manages to bring about a credible endgame to the Syrian conflict, or one that can be sold internally and internationally, then they will not obstruct it. If it fails, they can always walk away and let the Kremlin shoulder full blame.

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