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January 28, 2018 No.
1371

Apprehension In Syrian Opposition That Sochi Conference Aims To Establish New Political Framework For Syria Solution, Preserve Assad's Regime

By: H. Varulkar and O. Peri*

Introduction

On December 22, 2017, at the end of the eighth round of intra-Syrian talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, which focused on the topic of the ceasefire, the three countries sponsoring the talks – Iran, Russia and Turkey – announced that a national dialogue conference would be convened in Sochi, Russia on January 29-30, 2018, "attended by all parts of Syrian society."[1]

This Russia-led conference is part of this country's efforts to advance a political solution to the Syrian crisis on its own terms, while marginalizing the U.S. and Europe, after it has already managed to assume control of the military talks by leading the Astana process.[2] Some 1,600 Syrian representatives have been invited to attend the Sochi conference, and it is expected to discuss the Syrian constitution and the holding of elections in the country. As part of the effort to lend the conference international legitimacy, Russia also invited Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Kazakhstan and the UN to send representatives to the conference, as well as the U.S., China, Britain and France.

The Sochi conference is anticipated with reservations and great trepidation by the Syrian opposition, both political and military, which sees Russia not as a neutral party but as a major ally of the Syrian regime. The opposition fears that Russia means to use the conference to impose a new a political framework and new documents for resolving the Syria crisis, which will circumvent or supplant the existing documents, namely the Geneva I Communique of 2012 and UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254 of 2015.[3]

Reassurances by Russian officials that the Sochi conference is not meant to circumvent or replace the Geneva process, but only to reinforce and advance it, failed to convince the opposition, which also fears that the conference is meant to lend renewed legitimacy to Bashar Al-Assad's regime. These fears were supported by statements from Russian officials who clarified that elements opposed to Assad's remaining in power would not be included in the conference.


Emblem of the Sochi conference

It should be noted that the Syrian opposition is in a difficult situation, due to internal rifts, its military defeats in the war against the regime, and the waning political support from its allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The latter continues to declare its support for the opposition and its rejection of the Assad regime, but in practice it cooperated with Russia and Iran in leading the Astana talks and is now cooperating with them in the Sochi conference – apparently in return for a green light from Russia and Iran to fight the Kurds in Syria. As for Saudi Arabia, its anti-Assad position seems to be eroding as well, as evident, for example, from its support for the de-confliction agreements brokered by Russia,[4] and from the outcome of the Syrian opposition conference it hosted in Riyadh in November 2016. At this conference it was decided to incorporate opposition groups close to Cairo, which is moderate in its position towards the Syrian regime, as well as groups close to Russia, in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the official opposition representative to the Geneva talks.[5]

In these difficult circumstances, the Syrian political and military opposition was faced with the dilemma of whether to participate in the Sochi conference or boycott it. In the weeks leading up to the conference, many opposition elements called to boycott it, on the grounds that participating would only weaken the opposition, lend legitimacy to the Assad regime, and cement what it sees as the Russian occupation of Syria. However, others argued that, if the opposition does not participate, it will be marginalized and rendered irrelevant, and moreover, decisions take in its absence will later be forced on it. Some called to initiate alternatives, such as holding a national dialogue conference, electing a new opposition leadership or launching guerilla warfare.[6]

Eventually, on the day before the conference, following a meeting of the Geneva forum in Vienna, the HNC announced it had decided not to participate in the Sochi conference. Nasser Al-Hariri, head of the HNC delegation to the talks, said that the decision had been taken because the majority of HNC members, as well as a broad range of opposition forces, had been against participating.[7]

This report reviews the positions of Syrian oppositionists on participation in the Sochi conference.

Conference's Agenda Is Murky; Russia Clarifies: No Room For Opponents Of Assad's Remaining In Power

According to official Russian statements, 1,600 invitations have been sent to attend the conference in Sochi, Russia. Russia says that the invitees represent the entire Syrian people, thus implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that the opposition's delegation in the negotiations must represent "the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition."[8] At the same time, it should be noted that, as per Turkey's demand, representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were not invited.

The conference agenda has not been officially released, but many statements by Russian officials, including by President Vladimir Putin, indicate that it will focus on the issues of the constitution and elections in Syria. At the same time, it is not clear whether a new Syrian constitution will be drafted or the current one amended, nor whether a date will be set only for parliamentary elections in the country or also for a presidential election.

Additionally, in statements in recent weeks, Russian officials and other Russian elements have clarified to Syrian opposition elements that there is no room at Sochi for any discussion of the possibility that President Bashar Al-Assad would not remain in office. Thus, in an interview, Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev told the Russian news agency RIA: "Anyone who wants to use the Sochi arena to present slogans of resistance to Assad's remaining in power does not belong there, since it is clear that such people want to continue the armed conflict."[9]

In the run-up to the conference, a similar statement was posted on the official Facebook page of the Russian Khmeimim airbase in Syria: "Naturally, we aspire to resolve the Syrian crisis in peaceful ways, but as we have said in the past, there is no place in Sochi for anyone who opposes the presence of Syrian President Assad."[10]

Additionally, Russian officials declared that they had pressured the opposition to attend the conference. Russian envoy Lavrentiev warned the opposition that if it refused to do so, "this would mean that it is rejecting the hand outstretched to it for a political solution in Syria, and it will find itself outside the political process."[11]

In light of the emerging pro-Assad character of the Sochi conference, the Syrian regime officially welcomed it and confirmed that it would be attending. However, regime elements sought to clarify that the regime expected the conference to discuss the current constitution, not draw up a new one, and that it would focus only on parliamentary elections, not an early presidential election. In this context, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad said: "A Syrian constitution can only be drawn up on Syrian soil, and the current constitution must be honored."[12]

The U.S., in the meanwhile, has not declared its support of the Sochi conference. American officials have declared that the Geneva process is the "gold standard," which "many countries have signed on to," in reaching a political solution in Syria.[13] Another indication of the U.S. reservations regarding Sochi is an informal document of principles it has drafted along with Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan for resolving the Syrian crisis. Like the Sochi conference, the document, which was published in the Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily, focuses on the issues of the constitution and elections, proposing amendments to the Syrian constitution and measures to ensure the holding of free elections under UN oversight.[14]

Syrian Opposition Divided On Participation In Sochi

As stated, on the day before the opening of the Sochi conference, the HNC decided to boycott it. Most of the opposition factions fighting on the ground likewise decided not to attend. The decision was preceded by a debate between various parts of the opposition on whether to participate in the conference or not, with most writers calling not to, on the grounds that attending will strengthen the Assad regime, and many others warning against the consequences of boycotting the conference.

40 Opposition Factions Call To Boycott Sochi Conference Because Russia Is A Regime Ally

In light of the Russian statements about the Sochi conference, and as it becomes clear that the conference contradicts the Syrian opposition's vision of a political solution, 40 Syrian fighting factions, among them those that participated in the Astana talks, released a communique stating that that Russia was an aggressive state that had carried out war crimes against the Syrians, and completely rejecting its attempts to circumvent the Geneva process and the international resolutions that were confirmed by the UNSC and that Russia itself had signed – attempts conducted especially by means of the Sochi conference, that sets preconditions for invitees.[15]

Free Syrian Army In Southern Syria: "Anyone Attending The Conference Will Be Regarded As An Enemy"

Similarly, the alliance of the Free Syrian Army factions in southern Syria, known as the Southern Front, condemned the Sochi conference, and stated: "Anyone who participates in it, whether in an individual capacity or in the capacity of their status in the revolutionary organizations, will be considered our enemy, the enemy of the free Syrian people, and the enemy of the revolution, and will be a partner of the criminal regime and the forces of darkness: Iran, Hizbullah, and the criminal militias."[16]

National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: "Russia Is Not A Neutral Party In The Syria Crisis"

Additionally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (henceforth the National Coalition), the political body that claims to represent the Syrian opposition, announced its rejection of the Sochi conference. Ahmad Ramadan, director of the Coalition's media and public relations office, said that if Russia wants to support the political process, "it must pressure the Assad regime to participate in the Geneva [talks], to commit to the UNSC resolutions, and to enter into direct and serious negotiations." He noted the difficulty in participating in a conference sponsored by Russia, calling it "a side that is not neutral on the Syrian issue, but rather is biased towards the Assad regime" that it defends both militarily and politically.[17] Another National Coalition member, 'Abd Al-Basit Sida,[18] clarified that Sochi was more of a carnival than a conference, and pointed out that Russia's aim in holding it was to earn points for future negotiations with the U.S. and Europe. He stressed that the opposition's attending the conference would "very much weaken its position."[19]

Syrian Muslim Brotherhood: "The Conference Will Consolidate The Russian Occupation"

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria also criticized the conference, stressing in a communique that it rejected both it and its results, and calling for boycotting it. The conference, it said, meant the "consolidation of the Russian occupation and the disregard of the political solution cemented in the Geneva resolutions."[20]

Furthermore, over 3,500 oppositionists signed a statement rejecting the conference, stating that it sought "to impose a false constitution that will guarantee that Bashar Al-Assad and the foreign occupations that are sponsoring him will remain."[21]

 


Putin, alone at the Sochi conference, submits demand for Assad's remaining in power (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, December 27, 2017)

Syrian Oppositionists In Arab Press Articles: Attending Sochi Means Admitting The Opposition's Defeat

In a number of articles, Syrian oppositionists underlined why it was important to reject the Sochi conference. Syrian journalist 'Amar Dayoub, who writes a column for the Qatari London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, expressed fear that the opposition would be forced into making many concessions at Sochi, and argued that "its consent [to the conference's taking place], and the hinting by several top [opposition] officials that they would attend it, is an absolutely mistaken position... Ending the Geneva [track] and moving several of its topics to [the] Sochi [platform], which has no international legitimacy, will clarify that all the international resolutions on Syria are valueless or unimportant, and that they can be relinquished if the opposition, or many Syrian opposition elements, consent to do so. By attending the Sochi [conference], they are boosting the conference's value and legitimacy, and the resolutions that will come out of it will become a national paper... The appropriate position is to boycott Sochi, to examine the Geneva track, and to maneuver within its framework in order to implement the international resolutions. As a first step, there must be action to remove the foreign forces from Syria so that its citizens can truly determine its fate.[22]

Recently resigned National Coalition member 'Abd Al-Basit Sida wrote in the UAE daily Al-Hayat that attending the Sochi conference "is not only an admission of defeat, but also recognition of the legality of the [Syrian] regime and the assignment of blame for what happened [in Syria] to those who rose up against this regime... The proposed and expected conference at Sochi will in no way confuse the Syrians who reject any role [in Syria] by the existing regime, since they have already decided not to attend, and this decision will revive their unity and restore authentic enthusiasm for their cause."[23]

Debate In Opposition Prior To Decision To Boycott The Conference

Other opposition elements, headed by the HNC, expressed apprehensions about the Sochi conference, but nonetheless refrained from announcing their final position on it until the day before its opening, apparently trying to stall, on various pretexts. It seems that these elements were concerned about the possible ramifications of not attending the conference – that it will make them irrelevant to resolving the Syria crisis, and that any decisions and agreements made there would later be forced on them.

The opposition's dilemma whether to participate in the conference was also reflected in articles by opposition members. For example, Samira Musalama, deputy chair of the National Coalition, set out three options available to the opposition. She wrote in the daily Al-Hayat: "Examining the options available to it with respect to Sochi, the Syrian opposition finds itself at a crossroads. One [option] will leave it marginalized, another will cause a rift between the various components of its joint delegation, and the third may infuriate the Coalition's supporters, who firmly oppose the Russian role in resolving the Syria conflict...

"[In the first case,] if the Coalition declines to participate in the Sochi conference, it will mean sufficing [with the role of] observers in a process that may change the balance [of power] within the opposition itself. This will leave [the opposition] with no choice but to accept the results of the new Sochi platform which may be forced on it as part of international efforts, as happened recently before the passing of [UN] Resolution 2254, which is now regarded as the main source of authority for the negotiations...[24] In other words, [even] if the Syrian opposition delegation ignores the Sochi conference, this does not mean it can ignore its consequences. The High [Negotiations] Committee must realize this and work to create convincing alternatives, and not by means of speeches in the media, of the sort we have seen in past years...

"[In the second case,] if there is a rift within the opposition, between those who support participating in the Sochi conference and those who oppose this, although all of them are part of the same delegation, it will mean repeating the scenario of the Astana conference, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Many elements in the political opposition saw it as a Russian plot aimed at sabotaging the UN's Geneva track, but despite this, [the Astana track] now complements the political Geneva track and often surpasses it in terms of its consequences on the ground and even precedes it in terms of proposals and implementation...

"That leaves the third option, of attending the Sochi conference, which might lend it the legitimacy that Russia craves. But that risks losing the opposition's popular support."[25]

Others expressed apprehension regarding the possible reaction of Russia and Turkey to an opposition boycott of the Sochi conference. Hussein Al-Zu'bi, a columnist for the Syrian opposition website Zamanalwsl.net, wrote that such a move may anger Turkey, an important ally of the opposition, while provoking brutal military attacks by Russia. He wrote: "If these forces [i.e., the Syrian opposition] manage to sabotage the Sochi conference [by refusing to participate in it], it will be a slap in the face of Russia, and this may anger Turkey, which supports the conference... In that case, both parts of the opposition [political and military] will find themselves in an especially grave conflict: with an indispensable ally [Turkey], and with an enemy [Russia] who is striving to reach a settlement that will reflect what it sees as [its] victory in the Syrian arena, [a victory] that Russia will no doubt be reluctant to relinquish. After all, Russia created the Astana track after leveling the opposition-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, and also pressured [the opposition into participating in] all eight rounds of the Astana [talks] by means of massacres or [forced] population transfer agreements, as happened in the Al-Waer [area of] Homs and in Wadi Barada in Rif Damascus. It is not impossible that [Russia] will push [the opposition] towards Sochi by means of additional massacres..."[26]

Calls To Undermine Sochi Conference By Organizing Alternative Conference Or Through Guerilla Warfare

Given the problematic situation of the opposition vis-à-vis the Sochi conference, some called to launch alternative initiatives in order to "save the Syrian revolution," for instance to elect a new, united leadership for the opposition, convene a national dialogue conference, conduct long-term popular resistance or even launch a guerilla war.

'Abd Al-Halim Hajj Bakri, a columnist for the opposition website zamanalwsl.net, called to convene a popular conference that would elect a new opposition leadership and formulate a plan of action, before the Sochi conference imposes its own plan. He wrote: "Several popular campaigns conducted by Syrians on social media attracted Western attention due to the wide popular participation in them. So what will happen if one or several prominent Syrian forces convene a popular conference that will elect a leadership and outline a solution [for the Syria crisis], as well as a plan of action for the near future? This will no doubt bring the Syrian issue back into the spotlight and achieve everything that has not been achieved by the opposition elements that crowned themselves sponsors of the revolution. [The opposition] must act before Russia imposes its own plan for resolving the Syria [crisis] at the Sochi conference in late January, which will blow up the Geneva process... The Syrians no doubt realize that they have no allies, for everyone has abandoned them, defeated and struggling, to be slaughtered by the regime, Russia, Iran and the sectarian militias. They must act without hesitation to launch a purely Syrian initiative that will lay down foundations for a [reality] different from the one their enemies want."[27]

Syrian writer 'Amr Kush also recommended convening a national dialogue conference while also carrying out long-term popular protest: "The only option available to the vital Syrian forces is to unite their efforts so as to step up their action towards launching long-term popular resistance that has political aims... To this end we must contact people in the field, as well as countries that can help with this, in order to thwart the Russian leadership's plans. Also notable in this context is the call by Dr. Burhan Ghalioun to convene a national dialogue conference involving all sectors of the Syrian people, with the assistance and under the sponsorship of the UN... The Syrians can form a broad [coalition] that will formulate a unified Syrian resistance plan to sabotage the Sochi [conference]. It's not enough to say that we are not going to Sochi. We must act to create an alternative... in order to prevent the Syrian leadership from imposing its will on the Syrians in terms of the participants [in the conference] and its recommendations and decisions..."[28]

Among those who called for armed action were Yaman Dabqi, a columnist for the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, who wrote: "After an overwhelming majority of Syrians and over 40 [Syrian] factions opposed the Sochi [conference], we expect the honorable leaders of the opposition to [decide] a final position, [and] not just one of boycott and condemnation. Like all Syrians, we expect [to see] a countermeasure on the ground that will put an end to the Sochi [conference] and those behind it. Perhaps ending the de-confliction agreement and waging guerilla warfare is the last option available to the Syrians..."[29]

 

* H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 


[1] Al-Watan (Syria), December 24, 2018.

[2] The Russians originally meant to convene a "Syrian Peoples' Conference" at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria. But, failing to recruit broad support for this, including from the Syrian regime – which regarded the name of the conference as indicating that there is more than one people in Syria – this conference was postponed several times, and eventually canceled in favor of the upcoming conference in Sochi.

[4] Al-Watan (Syria), September 11, 2017. The de-confliction agreements defined four zones in Syria where hostilities would cease between "moderate" opposition factions and the regime and its allies. It should be note that these agreements freed the Syrian regime to fight in other arenas and regain more territories.

[5] The Riyadh conference was fraught with tension from the start, owing to assessments that it would deviate from what had been defined as "the basic principles of the Syrian revolution." A short while before it convened, several HNC members and officials, including the committee's general coordinator, Riyad Hijab, announced their resignation. Following the conference there were many complaints against the "new" HNC, and claims that it no longer represented the opposition.

[6] In this context it should be noted that Kurds from the autonomous region in northeastern Syria expressed a desire to attend the conference, apparently out of awareness that Russia is likely to play a central role in any political settlement in Syria, and in a bid to secure their status in case the U.S. stops supporting them. However, they were not invited to attend, due to Turkish opposition.

[7] Aljazeera.net, January 27, 2017. Before it announced it would not be attending the conference, the HNC repeatedly stated that it lacked sufficient information about the conference, including its goals and the identity of the participants in it, but did not rule out that it would attend. Al-Hayat (UAE), January 10, 2018.

[8] Un.org/press/en/2015/sc12171.doc.htm , December 18, 2015.

[9] Ria.ru, December 27, 2017.

[10] Facebook.com/Russianmilitaryinsyaria/posts/572611939752824, January 16, 2018.

[11] Ria.ru, October 31, 2017.

[12] SANA news agency (Syria), January 11, 2018.

[13] State.gov, January 23, 2018.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 26, 2018.

[15] Orient-news.net, December 26, 2017.

[16] Orient-news.net, December 24, 2017.

[17] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 2, 2017.

[18] On January 22, 2018, Sida announced his resignation from the Coalition, citing its poor performance. Zamanalwsl.net, December 22, 2017.

[19] Zamanalwsl.net, January 8, 2018.

[20] Facebook.com/ikhwansyria, December 27, 2017.

[21] Zamanalwsl.net, December 27, 2017.

[22] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), December 22, 2017.

[23] Al-Hayat (UAE), January 10, 2018.

[24] On this resolution, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.

[25] Al-Hayat (UAE), December 15, 2017.

[26] Zamanalwsl.net, December 26, 2017.

[27] Zamanalwsl.net December 23, 2018.

[28] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), December 29, 2017.

[29] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (Syria), December 29, 2018.