Russia's recent Syrian National Dialogue Congress elicited rather strong, mixed reactions. Admirers of Russian foreign policy hail the event as a triumph for Moscow, calling it another testament to the country’s ability to overcome notoriously difficult problems no one else can manage. But critics deem the Sochi conference a major setback, highlighting the limits of Russian influence in the Middle East.
Both sides are wrong.
It wasn't a triumph; rather, it was a resolution of the specific issues identified. It wasn't a defeat, but a demonstration of the boundaries of attempts to end Syria's seven-year civil war.
Let's recall that Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced the idea for the congress in October 2017 in an address at the annual Valdai Discussion Club conference. At that time, however, it wasn't entirely clear what he meant by the “scheduled event in Sochi."
The information that surfaced in the media or came from Kremlin experts in the following months did little to clarify the case. Different dates and locations were announced, a list of participants was made public only to disappear sometime later and the name of the event changed. Some said Putin needed the congress ahead of the 2018 presidential elections. Others believed Moscow intended to announce the end of the conflict and wrap up the peace settlement. Many feared the Sochi negotiation process would detract from the Geneva format.
Undoubtedly, the Kremlin took care to organize media coverage of the congress, held Jan. 29-30 in Sochi. However, it wasn't described as an important element of the presidential campaign. Actually, even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's statement shortly before the congress highlighted Russia’s moderate expectations about the event. Moreover, the Sochi venue was never a substitute for the Geneva peace process. On the contrary, the commitment to the UN-backed negotiations and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 — a timeline and structural guide for the Syrian peace process — became a major part of the congress’ official discourse. It appears the organizers tried to reflect the wishes of Syrian society and international players to reach an agreement.
Those who are serious about successful peace-building urgently need to make the Geneva process work. One example of this urgency can be seen in the de-escalation zones established in peace talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan. The zones emerged as relatively effective instruments for reducing violence on the ground at first. However, they have failed to achieve the stated objective of revitalizing the Geneva talks. Their limits are becoming clear, and they appear to be gradually losing their effectiveness, as evidenced by the fierce fighting in eastern Ghouta, Idlib and Afrin. Disagreements between the guarantor countries — Iran, Turkey and Russia — and some revenge-seeking players who want their pound of flesh will make it even harder for the cease-fire program to hold. At the same time, the nascent institutions of self-government, independent from Damascus, may ultimately transform the de-escalation zones into Kurdish-style quasi-states.
The Geneva program's ineffectiveness so far seems linked to how the warring parties perceive the situation.
The Syrian government, which has emerged as a strong player on the ground, doesn't really find it necessary to reach common ground with the opposition. Time is on Damascus’ side.
At the same time, the opposition is going to be even less disposed to engage in dialogue with the regime. Opposition leaders, who are incapable of winning the war, are at a crossroads. Some may agree on a limited and uneasy compromise, which Damascus still needs, to improve their international standing. For others, however, this is a forbidden path. Thus, they will have to adopt an increasingly rigid stance and wait for the second stage of the conflict to come after they have opted out of the game for some time. The failure to overhaul the country’s political system keeps the conflict going. Finally, others again derive far more benefits from the peace process than from its potential end. Under such circumstances, they are interested in endless foot-dragging over the issue.
Thus, Syrian society and international mediators — first and foremost Russia — are the only parties really pushing toward ending the conflict quickly.
By convening the congress, Moscow naturally sought to reassert its status as an indispensable mediator whose creativity and flexibility could help in most difficult situations. In the meantime, the participation of Turkey and Iran ensured the organizers' impartiality and allowed for strengthening the uneasy tripartite alliance.
Some 1,500 Syrians who arrived Jan. 29 in Sochi represented the civil society of the Syrian ethnic, religious and tribal groups; various political forces; and external and internal opposition, including the armed opposition.
Some groups, however, were not present. Representatives of the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party failed to come because of Turkey’s implacable position. The regime wasn't represented; President Bashar al-Assad felt it would be inappropriate to attend, as he obviously considers his government to be legitimate.
A large part of the High Negotiations Committee refrained from attending the event. Two dozen of the group's 34 members voted against going, though several still went.
Shortly before the main session, some opposition representatives walked out; they reportedly had been promised that all regime flags and emblems would be removed from the venue ahead of time, but those symbols remained. After the delegation left, Turkey agreed to represent the group's interests.
The decisions not to participate seem ill-conceived, given that UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attended. His presence was expected to give international legitimacy to the event. Opposition members who turned down the invitation opened themselves up to accusations that they were unwilling to contribute to the peace settlement.
The absence of some prominent Syrian forces deprived the assembly of its desire to project inclusivity but didn't render the event irrelevant. The congress was not conceived as a political negotiation; it was merely a get-together of different forces of civil society whose consolidated position could give fresh impetus to the peace process. In addition, some participants told Al-Monitor that many of those who intended to come had been threatened or otherwise pressured into abandoning the idea.
The organizers believed the agenda would focus on a number of items: drafting a new constitution, setting the stage for general elections under UN supervision, addressing humanitarian problems and developing a long-term comprehensive reconstruction program for Syria. However, the discussion revolved predominantly around a constitution.
Even before the start, it was known that the congress was due to adopt two documents. The first was a final communique compiled on the basis of the Naumkin document, a number of proposed basic principles of an inter-Syrian settlement named for Vitaly Naumkin, the head of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and an Al-Monitor contributor. The second item was an appeal to the world community regarding the urgent need to resolve the humanitarian crisis and move toward conflict settlement and Syria’s restoration. In addition, plans were made public to create special working groups and a constitutional commission whose work would help boost the Geneva process.
The blueprints of the documents, as well as the proposals regarding the commission, had been drafted in advance. However, the composition and the underlying principle for the constitutional commission aroused fierce controversies among the participants. As a result, the compromise reached by midnight included a list of 150 candidates — 100 from the government and 50 from the opposition — for the constitutional commission, while de Mistura was empowered to adjust the proposed list at his sole discretion in the interests of the settlement.
The final agreement can't be called a breakthrough, but it is the most notable result of the settlement efforts over the last year. The problem, however, is that even though the agreement was more comprehensive and had more signatures in its support than previous efforts, it's completely unclear how it would be able to make the negotiations in Geneva work, given the continued conflict among the parties' true interests.