April 2, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1388

Syrian Regime After Syrian Congress Of National Dialogue In Sochi: 'The Victor Sets The Conditions – And We Are The Victor'

April 2, 2018 | By O. Peri*
Russia, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1388

On January 30, 2018, the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue was held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. The conference, led by Russia, was part of that country's efforts to advance a political solution for the Syria crisis.

The week before the conference, on January 23, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his French, British, Saudi, and Jordanian counterparts had met in Paris and drawn up a paper presenting a vision for a political solution in Syria. The Syrian regime saw this meeting and the paper drawn up at it as an attempt to disrupt the Sochi conference and to interfere in internal Syrian affairs.

The Sochi conference began in disorder, and had been preceded by similarly disrupted preparations.[1] This was particularly evident in the matter of the participation of the representatives of factions of the Free Syrian Army, which operate in northern Syria. At first, the factions said that they would boycott the conference. Under pressure from their patron Turkey, they agreed to participate.[2] However, upon landing at Sochi airport, they reversed that decision once they saw that the conference emblem featured the flag of the Syrian regime but not, as they claimed to have been promised, an opposition flag facing it. Despite negotiations in the airport between the factions' representatives and Russian elements, no understanding could be reached, and hours later, the representatives flew back to Istanbul.

There were also reports of disagreements at the conference itself – first, between UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and Russian representatives, in matters concerning the establishment of a committee on the Syrian constitution, and then between Turkey and Russia, in the matter of several of the Syrian regime representatives who are considered terrorists by Turkey. These disputes delayed the opening of the conference.[3]

The sullied atmosphere was evident also in the conference sessions. Firas Al-Hakkar, correspondent for the Lebanese Hizbullah-affiliated Al-Akhbar daily, noted that the Syrian regime representatives were disrespectful towards the opposition representatives, interrupting them frequently and claiming that Syria was not their homeland. This, he said, proved that the Syrians "have not yet learned the basics of dialogue."[4]

At the end of the conference, the Syrian regime expressed its displeasure at the outcomes, except for those concerning the Syrian military and the Syrian constitution. This was made clear by the differences in the versions of the conference's concluding statement published by the official Syrian news agency and the one published by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that due to Russia's inclusion of the UN in the Sochi conference in a bid to obtain international approval for it, the conference's results were determined before it began, in negotiations between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Secretary General António Guterres. According to the newspaper, Guterres had set several conditions for UN participation, among them that it would be a one-time conference; that it would include no organizational committees; that de Mistura would determine the roles and status of the committee for the Syrian constitution and would choose its members from the lists provided to him by Russia, Iran, and Turkey; and, finally, that the conference would confirm the 12 political principles that de Mistura had previously presented at the eighth round of Geneva talks on Syria, in December 2017. The paper added that Russia had accepted these conditions.[5]

A month after the Sochi conference, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the Syrian regime was now refusing to discuss a political settlement as a solution for the Syria crisis, saying: "The victor sets the conditions, and we are the victor." With this move, it was rejecting the conference outcomes, and the conference's approval of de Mistura's 12 principles from Geneva, and was also refusing to implement the conference resolution to charge de Mistura with establishing a committee for the Syrian constitution and to determine this constitutional committee's roles and status.

Russia, on the other hand, wants, at the very least, for UN Security Council Resolution 2254,[6] to be implemented. Thus, it sent President Putin's emissary for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, back to Syria to meet with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Additionally, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov refused to meet with Assad's political advisor Buthayna Sha'ban during her late February visit to Russia.[7]

President Putin runs the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in Sochi, pitting his puppet Assad against himself (Source: Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, January 30, 2018)

This report will review the Syrian regime's and Syrian opposition's reactions to the Sochi conference, and the Paris paper drawn up the week before the conference by the U.S., France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

The Paris Paper Is A Western Attempt To Advance The Sochi Conference And To Present Demands For Syria's Constitution And Elections

On January 23, 2018, the foreign ministers of the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan met in Paris and drew up an unofficial document of principles regarding a political solution to the Syria crisis. The paper was given to UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, with the aim of impacting future rounds of political talks on Syria in Geneva. According to the unofficial Arabic translation of the paper that was posted on several websites, the five countries, known as the "Small Group," call on de Mistura to focus his efforts in three areas: "the content of the amended [Syrian] constitution; practical means for elections under UN oversight; and creating a safe and neutral environment in Syria in which these elections can be held." The paper also calls on all foreign elements relevant to the Syria political process to encourage the Syrian regime and opposition to focus on these points "and to set aside, at least initially, other issues." Further, the five countries expressed their willingness to participate in the rebuilding of Syria only after there is a comprehensive and genuine transfer of power, in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254 and the Geneva concluding statements.[8]

The paper then proposes general principles for the new Syrian constitution or for the amendment of the current constitution, including the limitation of the Syrian president's powers and the expansion of the prime minister's, whose appointment, as the appointment of the members of the government, will not need presidential approval. In addition, the paper proposed dividing the Syrian parliament into two councils, though the first council is not mentioned thereafter. With regard to the second council, the paper states that it will be based on regions of the country, and that its representatives will come from all areas of Syria and will be able to influence decision-making. Likewise, the paper proposes that the president will not have the power to disband the parliament, and called for placing the Syrian security apparatuses under the jurisdiction of the civil authority, and for ending the current situation in which security personnel can easily evade prosecution.[9]

The paper states that until the foreign elements supporting the Syrian regime and the opposition elements in Syria can arrive at an agreement, the UN will engage in drawing up the constitution, either by means of establishing a committee of Syrian experts to do so, or by means of a free national dialogue under the oversight and direction of the UN, as aiding the Geneva process. It adds that the Syrian regime has disregarded the current constitution and repeatedly violated its sections, and that therefore the constitution must be rewritten. However, it also says that in an early stage of amending the constitution, there will be a need for significant changes in the regime in order to create an environment that will assure that there can be credible elections in which everyone can vote, and the withdrawal of the foreign militias from the country is a condition for this.[10]

Syrian Opposition: The Paris Paper Is A Serious Document That Will Allow A New Constitution To Be Put Forward

The Syrian opposition was cautious about the Paris paper, saying that there can be no discussion of the constitution before discussing the political transition. Nasser Hariri, the head of the Supreme Negotiating Authority that represents the Syrian opposition in the Geneva talks, told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that along with satisfaction at the fact that the U.S. and other countries are again acting to push the Geneva process along, "we also are concerned and alert, because the promises of the previous American government were not fulfilled, but rather turned into a situation in which all the negative ramifications in the Syrian arena became reality."[11]

Other articles in opposition-affiliated media expressed optimism about the Paris paper, with the view that it marked renewed American involvement in Syria. National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces deputy chair Samira Al-Masalma wrote in Al-Hayat that the paper was a serious step that would advance the implementation of the UN resolutions by means of a new constitution. She stated that it sets out "a new vision that will facilitate the democratic process, regional development, and the political representation of the various regions of Syria in the parliament, and will enable a third rebirth of the Syrian Republic." The opposition to the paper, she added, "is in line with the [Syrian] regime's desire to maintain its grip on the central government and its resources, and on all of Syria – the grip that brought about the existing situation of oppression and tyranny and the gaps in development between the areas close to the capital city and those far away from it."[12]

Syrian Regime: The Paris Paper Was Drawn Up By Countries That Are "All Partners To The Blood That Has Been Shed In Syria" And "Is Not Worth The Ink It Is Written With"

As expected, the Syrian regime expressed objections to the Paris paper. Bashar Ja'afari, Syrian Ambassador to the UN and head of the regime's delegation to the Geneva talks, stated at the Vienna talks on January 25-26, 2018 that it was no accident that the talks in Vienna were held after the unofficial Paris paper had been leaked, since the five countries were "all partners to the blood that has been shed in Syria since the beginning of the crisis." He stressed that the Syrian regime rejects out of hand the paper that "is not worth the ink it is written with, and that our people will never consent to solutions that arrive by parachute or in tanks."[13]

Articles in Syria's regime-affiliated media stated that the Paris paper constituted interference in Syria's internal affairs, and that it harmed Syrian sovereignty. Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor of the Syrian Al-Watan daily, which is close to the regime, wrote that the anti-Syria axis is mobilizing not only to thwart the Sochi conference but also to thwart any possible political solution in Syria. He said: "The conferences in Paris and Vienna, and the wrangling over the issue of chemical [weapons], are aimed to further pressure Syria in order to silence the voice of the Syrians and to thwart their national dialogue... The U.S.'s aim vis-à-vis Syria is no longer expressed in terms of 'bringing down the regime,' as in the last seven years, but has become a desire, or an illusion, to force international auspices, in the name of the UN, on Syria and the Syrians, by means of imposing a new constitution and dividing the land into cantons." He stressed that the Syrians "are clinging to every inch of Syrian soil; we all stand behind our army and our armed forces in order to defeat the terrorism and the occupiers everywhere on Syrian soil. We will determine our [own] future and destiny by means of a constitution drawn up in Damascus by Syrian hands under Syrian law and under the current constitution, and not under UN sponsorship, and most certainly not under the auspices of the U.S. and the countries that support it."[14]

Different Versions Of The Sochi Conference's Concluding Statement

Even though officially the Syrian regime welcomed the Sochi conference, and thanked Russia for hosting it, regime sources told Al-Watan that de Mistura and the group of countries led by the U.S. had attempted to insert into the statement phrases "that cast doubts on the credibility of the Syrian state and the Arab Syrian military in the fight against terrorism."[15]

The Syrian regime media published various versions of the statement. For example, with regard to the Syrian army, the official Syrian news agency Sana reported that the conference had agreed on the "preservation" of the Syrian army and armed forces[16]; on the other hand, opposition websites reported that it had been decided to "build a strong, unified, meritocratic, and national army."[17] The official concluding statement, released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, referred to "a strong, unified, meritocratic, and national army" without indicating whether the existing army was to be maintained or a new one would be established.[18]

Diplomatic sources in Damascus claimed that de Mistura wanted the section on the army to begin by stating "building a dependable national army," but that conference participants objected and changed it to "preservation of the national army in Syria," without the "dependable." According to the sources, it was not de Mistura who was behind the original version, but the U.S. and France, who drew up the Paris paper, from which de Mistura took phrases, and that the accurate Sochi conference concluding statement was the one published by Sana.[19]

Another disputed issue was the Syrian constitution. According to the version of the concluding statement published by the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was agreed to establish a constitutional committee, to include representatives from the Syrian regime along with broad Syrian opposition representation, with the aim of preparing an agreed-upon draft constitution that would promote a political settlement under UN sponsorship and in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254. The Russian Foreign Ministry version noted that the final decision regarding the mandate, powers, rules of the process, and selection of criteria for assembling the constitutional committee would be taken in the Geneva talks, and that the participants had requested the appointment of a UN emissary to Syria to help with the work of the committee there.[20]

In this context, de Mistura noted, at the conclusion of the conference: "I... take note that those of you who are here agree that a constitutional committee is to be formed comprising the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic delegation along with a wide-represented opposition delegation for drafting a constitutional reform, and that your agreement is intended as a contribution... to the political settlement under UN auspices in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254... And you have concluded that final agreement is to be reached in the UN-led Geneva process on the mandate, terms of reference, powers, rules of procedure, and selection criteria for the composition of the Constitutional Committee. I have heard your appeal that this assignment comes to the UN to get a Constitutional Committee established..."[21]

Nasser Hariri, the head of the Supreme Negotiating Authority that represents the Syrian opposition in the Geneva talks and that had boycotted the Sochi conference from the outset, said on the subject of the constitution that "restricting the constitutional process to the UN is good, and we are committed to it. The constitutional process is part of UNSC 2254, and it cannot be deviated from or transferred somewhere else."[22]

In contrast, the Syrian regime is taking care to call the Sochi conference, to which it agreed, a "conference to discuss the constitution," and is stressing that it has no authority to change the current constitution but only to submit recommendations for doing so, such as additional changes to a particular section. It should be noted that in the version of the concluding statement published by Sana, the part concerning the Syrian constitution was entirely omitted.

The Syrian Regime: Russia, The U.S., And The U.N. Distorted The Concluding Statement Of The Sochi Conference

In light of the continued reports in the Arab and Syrian media that the UN will assemble the constitutional committee, the Syrian regime's statements in this matter have become increasingly harsh. Bashar Ja'afari, Syrian Ambassador to the UN and head of the regime's delegation to the Geneva talks, warned that there should be no mistake in interpreting the conference's concluding announcement, and stressed: "The conference participants gave the [UN] special envoy to Syria no mandate, authorization, or authority in the matter of the establishment of the committee for discussing the constitution. We in Syria are committed to what the conference participants voted on, and we have nothing to do with any committee established by any foreign element. We will disregard the results of discussions [by such a committee], and anything else connected to it."[23]

Ayman Soussan, aide to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem, accused de Mistura and his "distorted interpretation" of the concluding statement of obscuring and confusing the reality of the issue of the constitutional committee. He said that the section on giving a role to de Mistura in the matter of the constitution appeared in the original draft of the conference's concluding statement, but that the participants objected to it and it was decided, by a majority vote, to omit it. Soussan stated: "The West, headed by the U.S., and de Mistura, are striving to cancel and to conceal the results of the Sochi conference, even though it was the first conference with a large Syrian presence representing the various parts [of Syrian society]. Therefore, we see them issuing declarations contradicting the concluding statement that was approved by the participants, and repeatedly trying to set the popular Syrian decision under UN auspices. The Syrians at Sochi opposed this, and we as a state certainly oppose it..."[24]

Articles in the Syrian government press also stated that de Mistura and the U.S. had tried to distort the results of the Sochi conference. Ahmad Hamada, columnist for the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra, called this "an attempt to mislead the world [so that it thinks that] Syria is not committed to the results of the Sochi conference, even though it is committed to what was proposed at this conference, but is not committed to any committee that is not Syrian. This also applies to the constitutional committee, whose [establishment process] the U.S. has started to disrupt; [the U.S. has also begun] to discuss matters that are not included in the sections [of the] Sochi [concluding statement] regarding [the constitutional committee]."[25]

Another Al-Thawra writer, Nasser Mundhir, noted: "De Mistura's attempt to melt away the Sochi results, particularly those concerning the constitutional committee, are aimed at replacing the document prepared by the so-called 'Washington group' [i.e. the Small Group]... with the aim of bringing the Syrian issue under the auspices of the aggression [against Syria] – something that Syria vehemently rejects, as it emphasizes that the constitution is solely a Syrian issue..."[26]

Writing even more harshly was Al-Watan columnist Bassem Abu Abdallah, who attacked the UN and the Russians and accused them of deliberately making ambiguous statements about the results of the conference. He wrote that de Mistura was ignoring the changes made by the conference participants to the concluding statement, and added that the changes had not been included even in the version published by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which, he claimed, stated, instead of the actual wording, "the statement agreed upon between Russia and the UN aimed at assuring an international umbrella for the conference."

"He proceeded to, as he said, correct some misapprehensions: "1) The Sochi conference participants, from all elements of the Syrian people, did not go there in order to negotiate with anyone on determining the future of their land and the type of political, social, and economic regime [that they would have], particularly since all the international resolutions stress the exclusive right of the Syrian people in this matter; 2) the attempts to harass the committee dealing with 'constitutional amendments' – while [amending the constitution] is reserved exclusively for the Syrians – are open and known attempts at denigrating [the committee]. De Mistura's role is to facilitate and assist, not [to act as if he were] authorized by the Syrians or authorized to be their supreme proxy negotiating on their behalf and assembling for them a committee to draw up a constitution... This, while we understood that the conference was aimed at amending the constitution and at discussing only the 2012 constitution, as clarified in order to prevent confusion at a Sochi press conference by Ahmad Al-Kuzbari, head of the committee for constitutional affairs in the Syrian parliament; 3) failure to mention the changes to the concluding statement made by the conference participants... is akin to 'disrespect' towards the Syrians, who are not under the auspices of anyone in the world. The desire to make the Sochi conference a success does not mean that its discussions should be circumvented... Its participants came with openness, in order to prepare a new environment for a political solution, not to authorize anyone to provide solutions instead of the Syrians [themselves]; [and] 4) the role, authority, and number of members of the committee to amend the constitution have already been set, and it has been determined that this [committee] will be directed by the Sochi participants [that is, the Syrians].

"Therefore, the discussion in de Mistura's circles about the authority given [to them] to establish a committee is misleading, and overturns the results of the conference, which emphasized that the conference is purely Syrian in composition, authority, and discussions.

"The most important quandary remains: Is the UN attempting to impose its sponsorship in accordance with what appeared in the miserable paper of the quintet [i.e. the Paris paper] – that is, an attempt to authorize de Mistura to put together the constitutional committee and to draw up a draft constitution – as he himself said and as those who are disseminating his thoughts are saying, i.e. 'the Sochi conference gave him more than he ever dreamed?' If these are the intentions, then we can expect a cruel political and diplomatic battle...

"With regard to our Russian friends, they face a question that they must answer transparently...: Where did the Syrians' changes in the [concluding] statement go[?]! And why did they [the Russians] ignore them [i.e. in the version published by the Russian Foreign Ministry][?]!"[27]


*O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[2] Turkey is one of the sponsors, along with Russia and Iran, of the Astana talks about military matters in Syria. Turkey supported the Sochi conference after the eighth round of Astana talks, on December 22, 2017.

[3], January 30, 2018.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 7, 2018.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 1, 2018.

[6] UNSC Resolution 2254, of 2015, states that Syria will be administered by a "credible, inclusive, and non-ethnic administration." For details on the statement and the resolution, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 27, 2018.

[8] The concluding statement of Geneva I, in 2012, states that the Syria crisis would be resolved by the establishment of a transitional ruling body with full powers over the Syrian government institutions. For details on the statement, see  MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.

[9] Under a 1969 law, Syrian security personnel cannot be prosecuted without their commander's consent.

[10] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 27, 2018.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 4, 2018.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), February 2, 2018.

[13], January 26, 2018.

[14] Al-Watan (Syria), January 28, 2018.

[15] Al-Watan (Syria), February 4, 2018.

[16], January 31, 2018.

[17], January 31, 2018.

[18], January 30, 2018.

[19] Al-Watan (Syria), February 4, 2018.

[20], January 30, 2018.

[21], January 30, 2018.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 4, 2018.

[23], February 14, 2018.

[24], February 13, 2018.

[25] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 16, 2018.

[26] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 18, 2018.

[27] Al-Watan (Syria), February 15, 2018.

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