Monday,22 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Monday,22 October, 2018
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s Syria conference fans flames

Moscow’s move to host a conference on conciliation between the Syrian regime and supposed opposition at Hmeimim constitutes a challenge to the internationally-recognised opposition, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


Russia’s Syria conference fans flames
Russia’s Syria conference fans flames

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Russian President Vladimir Putin said 20 October he is certain Moscow and Damascus will defeat terrorists in Syria soon, noting that the creation of “de-escalation zones” is a critical outcome of cooperation between Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Putin also announced Russia will host a “Conference for the Peoples of Syria” at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia in western Syria to reconcile between the government and opposition. The gathering would include the government, opposition factions and all ethnic and religious sects in Syria.

The conference would come at the end of November, and the Russians began intense communications across Syria to convince everyone to participate, including Kurds, Christians close to the regime, tribal leaders, nominal opposition parties inside Syria who are under the watchful eye and sponsorship of the regime, as well as some opposition figures living in areas under regime control. November has already started, but Moscow has not reached out to the Syrian opposition forces known and recognised outside Syria.

Russia wants 1,500 participants at the conference, half from the regime and its allies, while the rest from various sects, currents and regions in Syria. The Kurds and Christians were each given 100 seats, and others involved in Syrian politics were also invited. Moscow vowed to guarantee the safety, arrival and departure of participants outside Syria, and could even guarantee their safety if they decide to remain in Syria after the conference.

Conference organisers said the gathering would focus on discussing the constitution, and is not an alternative to the Geneva track whose sponsors believe it the main course for action. It could be a precursor for a more extensive conference at Damascus International Airport next month.

All these reassurances, explanations and optimism did not convince the opposition to participate in the conference or pay any attention to it. The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee refused to attend the conference, and its spokesman, Riyad Naasan Agha, said: “The conference is off track from the international political solution, and is only a Russian attempt to rehabilitate the regime and restore despotism in Syria. It is unacceptable to call it ‘Conference for the Peoples of Syria’ because we are one people.”

The Opposition and Revolutionary Forces Coalition also refused to attend even before they were invited, Aqab Yehia, the leader of the Democratic Bloc, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It is an attempt to monopolise the situation in Syria in the absence of the US, EU and regional parties.” He believes the name of the conference “is a new term that clearly spells division and fragmentation which the coalition rejects.” Yehia denied that Turkey put any pressure on the coalition to attend.

Mohamed Aloush, head of the political bureau of the Army of Islam and member of the opposition negotiating team in Geneva, said: “The Peoples Conference in Hmeimim circumvents international resolutions, and hosting a regime-regime dialogue under the guise of negotiations is Russia toying with the blood of our people.”

Armed opposition factions that attended Astana meetings refused to go to Hmeimim. Colonel Fateh Hassoun, leader of Liberating the Homeland movement, who went to Astana, said the upcoming conference is “an internal dialogue among the components of the regime, not one between the components of Syrian society. Where are the Syrian people? Where are the eight million Sunni Syrian refugees? Who will represent them? The opposition has not received an invitation to the conference, and if we do we will not participate.”

Even the National Coordination Committee, considered the most docile opposition, refused to go to Hmeimim. “Opposition forces and the revolution will never attend,” declared the committee’s general coordinator Hassan Abdel-Azim. “The conference will not replace the High Negotiations Committee nor the upcoming Riyadh 2 meeting, and will not result in a negotiating team to Geneva.”

As expected, the Syrian regime welcomed the conference since half the attendees represent it, and the majority of the other half are close to the regime. It does not pose a threat to the regime, and will portray an image to the outside world that the Syrian people agree to stop the war and make peace with the regime.

“Any national dialogue must be Syrian-Syrian without diktats from outside,” declared Syrian Minister of Information Mohamed Ramez Torgman. “It would be part of ongoing conciliations and settlements, which includes Hmeimim. Everyone must understand that this is under the umbrella of the Syrian constitution, Syrian nationalism and the Syrian flag.”

Although the conference will be held in less than three weeks, it does not have an action plan yet. No one knows the agenda except for general themes being discussed in the media without official sources. There are many opaque aspects that could be difficult to settle in the coming two weeks, and those invited are still unknown except for a few who have not confirmed their attendance.

Wael Mirza, member of the Democratic Syria Council, the political arm of the Kurdish militias in northern Syria, said the conference “is a general gathering but not a conference that will resolve the Syrian crisis. According to the Russians, after the opening ceremony the 1,500 participants will be divided into political, economic, social and services workshops to discuss reconstruction and the future of Syria after war”. Although Mirza agreed to attend with the Kurdish delegation, he expressed concerns about a strategic mistake the Russians made when picking participants. “I cannot go as a Christian. How can Russia invite Kurds and Arabs as ethnic groups and not invite Assyrians as an ethnicity?”

Thus, the Russians are hosting a broad conference that has no agenda or goal, and invited 1,500 Syrians without any basis for choosing their guests. However, the Russians do want to accomplish several goals at this conference.

First, Russia wants to coin the term “Peoples of Syria”, which is not just a linguistic misnomer but a precursor for plans to divide a united people before carving up the territories, dividing their culture, traditions, history and aspirations. Eventually, the individual Syrian citizen will lose touch with fellow citizens, and each faction will become focused on their ethnic group, clan and street.

The Russians also want agreement on common grounds for Syria’s political, military, security, legal and social future, when everyone knows even 50 Syrians cannot agree on a single issue or opinion. The Russians know the regime is the strongest player and the conference will tip overwhelmingly in favour of the regime.

Third, the Russians want to undermine the notion of Syrian opposition and promote new and unknown faces as the real opposition inside the country, no matter how close they are to state security agencies. In the future, they would be imposed as new currents demanding seats and votes in regime-opposition negotiations in Geneva. This would all but destroy the role of the internationally-recognised opposition.

Hmeimim will take place shortly after a conference in Astana forced by the Russians on military factions defeated in Aleppo. There, the opposition and regime will indirectly negotiate under Russian auspices as Moscow tries to make Astana replace the Geneva process. Hmeimim will also come before the eighth round of Geneva talks and after another conference scheduled by the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee in Riyadh this month to expand its membership.

A flurry of conferences and activities are afoot in the name of finding a political solution for the Syrian tragedy. The Russians are masters of the scene and are in a race against time to fill the vacuum created by the US’s absence, and use their “colonial” presence in Syria to promote themselves as the ones in charge of Syria. They take initiative and actions to impose their plan, while the US stands confused.

“Russia is preparing for this conference amid intensive media coverage,” Yehia told the Weekly. “It will try to impose a fait accompli and create a body that Russia will assign the task of negotiating or conciliation, depending on the Russian scheme for a settlement, which contradicts the principles of international resolutions. Especially Geneva I statutes, which stipulate forming a transitional governing body with a full executive mandate between the opposition and regime during an interim phase.”

He added: “The Syrian opposition is facing serious tests and needs to know the best tactic and how to handle these variables. Most importantly, how its objections can be effective and influential to prevent any international or domestic player from excluding it.”

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