The seventh round of the Astana talks concluded with no breakthrough. The eighth round has been pencilled in for the second half of December. None of the topics the participants wanted to discuss — prisoner exchange, mine detection and a general amnesty from Damascus — was agreed upon at Astana VII.
Instead, Astana VII focused on a forthcoming national dialogue conference that the Russian Foreign Ministry is organising in Sochi, Russia, a favourite venue for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many see it as a gradual substitute for the UN-mandated Geneva talks, which Putin was never too enthusiastic about, seeing them as the brainchild of former US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Sochi I will most probably be followed by Sochi II and Sochi III, giving political cover to the Astana talks and substance to the ceasefire agreements reached in four de-conflict zones by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Russians hope to include new territory in the de-conflict zones agreement, south of Damascus, bringing them to a total of five. Idlib in north-western Syria is presently being handled by Turkish troops and Russian military police have been deployed in the countryside of Damascus and in all territory from the Syrian-Jordanian borders in southern Syria to the vicinity of Sweida in the Druze Mountains.
The date for the Russian conference was scheduled for October 29 but it was postponed so as not to overlap with Astana VII. It has now been fixed for November 18 and its name was changed from “Congress of the Syrian Peoples” which many found demeaning, to a “National Dialogue Conference.” Also, it won’t take place on the Russian military base of Hmeimim on the Syrian coast, given reservations from the Syrian opposition, but on Russian territory.
The list of invitees has reached up to 1,300 individuals and 33 political entities, 18 of them from within Syria. The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has been invited and so have the Cairo-backed National Coordination Committee (NCC) and the Syrian National Coalition.
The latter have declined the invitation, saying they will not “participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without UN sponsorship.” The HNC will likely follow, with one of its top figures, Mohammad Alloush, saying that Sochi will be talks “between the regime and the regime.” Observers in Moscow and Damascus said that this would likely change when Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two main backers of the Syrian opposition, are brought on-board the Sochi talks.
All Russian-friendly opposition figures, members of the Moscow Platform, have been invited and so have all the local councils produced from the four de-conflict zones, along with scores of Kurdish politicians, headed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Commander of the SDF-aligned People’s Protection Units (YPG) Sipan Hamo recently made a high-profile visit to Moscow. More than any other player in the Syrian battlefield, the SDF’s presence is vital as they control oil-rich cities east of the Euphrates River, including Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State and are the only fighters receiving US arms and assistance.
The Russian constitutional draft will be high on the agenda at Sochi, rather than the transitional government body (TGB) that the opposition insists on creating to take over power from Syrian President Bashar Assad. No mention of Assad’s departure has been made in all literature and documents produced ahead of the Sochi conference, raising the possibility of a Saudi boycott of the entire convention. Instead, the Russians are still calling on the Syrian opposition to “moderate” its views and push for a more realistic power-sharing agenda, rather than continuing to insist upon regime-change within Damascus. This has prompted a spokesman for the opposition to accuse Russia of acting as an “occupying state.”
The Kurds seem to be content with the Sochi conference, as they cuddle up to the Russians, who are not critical of their attempts at creating a Kurdish-led federal government in northern Syria.
Communal elections were allowed to happen on September 25 and elections within the municipalities are scheduled for Qamishli, Hasakeh, Kobane and Afrin. If the present form of the Russian-written constitution passes, they will get to elect their own governing councils, use the Kurdish language at schools, name their own governors and gain a share of their territory’s natural resources.
A Russian presidential envoy went to Damascus in late October to outline details of the conference at Sochi. Speaking to Russia Today after his Syria visit, Alexander Lavrentiev said participants at the Sochi conference would discuss drafting a new constitution, along with upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
The timing of the parliamentary vote is up for discussion at Sochi and will likely be monitored by credible international organisations but the presidential vote is fixed for 2021, which is when Assad’s third term ends.
It’s a Russian-event from start to finish, with very little — if any — input from Riyadh, Ankara, Tehran, Washington or even the United Nations. Interestingly, none of those world capitals objected to the Sochi conference nor did they say that Russia was hijacking the political process or replacing the UN-mandated one in Switzerland. Seemingly all of them have surrendered to Putin’s vision of the Syrian endgame and are unwilling to commit money or resources to change or challenge that.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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