Sochi: another step towards a Syrian resolution

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The main success of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held on 30 January in Sochi is that it existed. Up to the last moment, Russian diplomats and experts doubted that the Congress would attract enough Syrian delegates to be credible. There was fears that it might be cancelled for a third time.

Finally, there were 1.500 representing a large spectrum of Syrian society, despite the absence or early departure of some members of the opposition. Western analysts, backed by some Russians, are convinced that the motives of the Kremlin were essentially electoralist. But it is ignoring an important part of the picture. Of course, president Putin is happy to increase his palmares ahead of the presidential elections of 18 March. In this case, by demonstrating his stature on the international scene. But elections are seldom fought on won foreign policy in peacetime. Putin is naturally keen to show that the military victory paved the way for restoring peace and stability in Syria and all the region. And that Moscow is now a central actor of the diplomatic solution, contrary to Washington who prefers a pursuit of fighting or a partition of Syria to any kind of Russiana Pax.

In any case, Putin does not need Syria to convince Russians that their country, under his presidency, regained prominence on the international scene. What is important is that successive Russian-engineered Dialogues demonstrate that the world is larger than the West (which comes with a lot of exclusives but no solutions acceptable on the ground) and that traditional international methods need to be shacked to stay relevant. This is why the Russians have repeated that Sochi, as well as peace talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana in May, were not intended to replace Geneva. After all, Russia is a supporter of the UN and quotes its seat at the Permanent Council as part of its Great Power status.

To make it clearer, all meetings have been attended by Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria. And with Turkey and Iran, Russia insisted that the initiative is a way to facilitate the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The idea is to provide another platform which does not fall immediately in the trap of previous Geneva meetings: a deadlock between the West and Russia about the role of president Assad. Hence the importance to involve a large number of regional actors, including those who took opposite approaches in the Syrian conflict. The Astana process was initiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran who can hardly be described as allies about Syria. Turkey even questioned the presence of ‘terrorists’ (probably read Kurds) in Sochi.

But Russian diplomatic activities have included all states involved at different levels with the future of the Middle East and the fight against Islamist extremists such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia. The choice of Astana is also a signal to Russian neighbours that good relations with Russia can be better suited to their geopolitical and regional interests than by allowing Western countries to use them as a pawn in their fight to reduce Moscow influence. For instance, Kazakhstan President Nazarbaev is keen to profile himself as the man who made his country a hub for international dialogue.

In Sochi, the absence of some strata of the Syrian opposition put a shadow on the meeting, but Moscow bets that progress can be made with the number and diversity of Syrian delegates who gathered. If they manage to make progress, from meeting to meeting, the absents would look as spoilers.

The Russian programme is well known: first, to gather a large representation of all military, political, ethnic and religious Syrian groups for forming a National Union government. Second, have this government writes and approve a new Constitution. Third organise new elections. President Assad can not be sidelined on the first stage. He is more obtuse than ever as he sees himself as a great military strategist who had won the war, perhaps with a little backing from Russia

but just. The Russian experts and diplomats know from previous experience that no outsiders, including direct interventions of Putin, can convince him to withdraw now. So political realism obliges to accept he will stay a president for a while – the shorter the best. The important is to have a new Constitution, providing for reduced powers for the president, in such a way that he can not torpedo the electoral process.

No-one dares to risk an agenda, but a multi-level path of negotiations looks as a reasonable way to forge a political solution while preventing further destabilising ‘initiatives’ by external forces.

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