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article imageRussia's showpiece Syria congress marked by boycotts, little progress

By Rouba EL HUSSEINI and Theo MERZ (AFP)     Jan 30, 2018 in Politics

Russia's showpiece Syria congress aimed to bring seven years of war closer to an end Tuesday, but closed without a significant breakthrough after a string of boycotts and last-minute cancellations.

Around 1,400 delegates attended the meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, as part of a broader push by regime-backer Moscow to consolidate its influence in the Middle East and start hammering out a political solution to the conflict.

But expectations for the event were dramatically lowered over the weekend after the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC), the main opposition group, and the country's Kurdish minority said they would boycott the talks.

The conference suffered a further setback on Tuesday morning when rebel representatives, who had flown in from Turkey the previous night, said they would not go further than Sochi airport because the conference logo featured only regime flags.

In closing remarks, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said delegates had agreed to the formation of a committee to discuss the country's post-war constitution, including government delegates and representatives of the SNC, among others.

He said the UN would lead efforts to form the committee, but did not specify how this would happen. A ninth round of UN-backed talks ended in Vienna last week without the warring sides having met face to face.

A copy of the final statement, seen by AFP in Arabic, did not mention the fate of Moscow's ally President Bashar al-Assad.

- An 'embarrassment' -

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters drive toward the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday as part of op...
Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters drive toward the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday as part of operation "Olive Branch" against Kurdish forces
OZAN KOSE, AFP

"We are going from theory to practice," de Mistura told reporters at UN headquarters by telephone from Sochi.

"We never had the government side and the opposition actually getting involved in a discussion of a new constitution, because they were not in agreement.

"I think we have reached that point."

Under the plan, the UN envoy will choose some 45 to 50 delegates who will be part of the committee from the government, the opposition and independent groups.

The SNC accused Assad and his Russian backers of continuing to rely on military might and showing no willingness to enter into honest negotiations as it announced it would not attend Sochi.

De Mistura, an Italian-Swedish diplomat who has led UN peace efforts in Syria since 2014, sounded a cautious note over whether the committee could take shape and achieve its goal of drafting a constitution.

"The devils are in the details. It's going to be uphill," he said.

Authorities from Syria's Kurdish autonomous region said at the weekend they would also boycott the event because of the ongoing offensive on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin by Turkey, which was co-sponsoring the Sochi congress along with Iran.

Moscow had said Syrian society would be fully represented at the meeting -- the first of its kind held in Russia -- but almost all those confirmed as attending were from either Assad's Baath Party, allied movements or the regime's "tolerated opposition."

The hosts did not provide a full list of delegates.

Neil Hauer, an independent analyst focused on Russia and Syria who was in Sochi for the congress, told AFP bringing the Kurds to their first major international Syria summit would have been one of Moscow's primary goals.

"They put a lot of political capital into this and negotiated for months, and it has been a flop," Hauer said, describing the no-shows at the talks as an "embarrassment".

- Heckling -

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would "not make a tragedy" of the fact "two or three groups" could not take part.

Lavrov's opening remarks at the events, which were delayed by two hours because of ongoing negotiations, were interrupted both by cries of "Long live Russia!" and angry heckling from Syrian delegates.

Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart spoke twice on the phone in a bid to resolve the rebel issue, but after more than 14 hours of negotiations, they returned to Turkey without coming to the congress.

Russia, which has spearheaded several rounds of talks from the start of last year in Kazakhstan's Astana, initially hoped to convene the congress in Sochi in November, but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors.

Moscow's decision to launch a bombing campaign to support Assad in September 2015 -- Russia's first major military operation abroad since Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 -- is widely seen as a turning point in the multi-front conflict that helped shore up the Syrian president.

The Syrian war, in which more than 340,000 people have died and millions more been displaced, began in 2011 as the regime crushed anti-government protests.

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