By Trying to Please All Parties, Putin Lost the Game at Sochi

The grandly titled Syrian National Dialogue Congress was hastily wrapped up at Sochi on Tuesday night, Jan.30, before it reached a finale and resolutions. Designed by President Vladimir Putin as the culmination of a successful effort to bring the Syrian government and opposition under one roof at the Black Sea resort of Sochi for ironing out a better future for their country, it fell apart amid reciprocal acrimony and empty seats. He had hoped to use its success to propel his campaign for re-election. Instead, the Congress opened under the long shadow of boycotts by opposition groups, not least over Moscow’s support for Bashar Assad’s war against them.

The Russian army’s military feats in the Syrian war became a two-edged sword against Putin’s drive for a diplomatic solution. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s speech was bitterly heckled by rebel leaders, who accused Russia of killing thousands of Syrians with their air strikes.

The 1,600 invitations sent out for the Sochi Congress were billed as representing “all strata of Syrian society – not only groups with distinct ethnic or religious identify, but also individuals who care about Syria’s fate.” The Kurds were a problem, judging from the semi-apologetic official reference. “This is an interesting matter which concerns many people. The Kurds will assuredly come, but invitations were sent to them individually.”

Putin designated Iran and Turkey his “co-guarantors,” but he left them behind when he shuttled among the assorted parties and allies for an over-ambitious bid to sell the constitutional amendments he proposed presenting to the congress for approval. Two measures were to bring the Sunni majority into government via democratic elections, as well as extending rights to the minorities, including the Kurds. Assad’s removal would have been accomplished through the ballot box.

The two measures ran into adamant objections in Tehran and Ankara.

Putin accordingly set about broadening his support base, DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East sources report. He invited Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both antagonists of Iran and Turkey, to weigh in by bringing to the table Syrian opposition groups they had sponsored with funds, arms and intelligence (some only vaguely).

But this tactic was stillborn. As the date for the “Dialogue” approached, Cairo and Riyadh discovered that pro-Tehran participants, who had been removed from the invitation lists at their insistence, had been put back by the Iranian teams working with the Russian organizers in Moscow and Sochi. Both Arab powers quit cooperating with Moscow, partly in response to Washington’s insistence. The ricochet was instantaneous: a host of rebel groups joined the boycott of the Sochi Congress. Some of those who had already arrived in Sochi turned around and booked the next flights home. The main opposition group, Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), announced at the end two days of hard UN-led bargaining in Vienna, that it would not attend. The Kurds likewise decided to stay away, because they suspected the Russians of collusion in the Turkish offensive to drive the Kurdish YPG militia out of the northern Syrian region of Afrin, instead of acting to stop it. Abdel Hamid Darwish, founder of the veteran Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (KDPP), said candidly that his party was boycotting the Sochi talks because of the Russian attitude towards Turkish attacks on Afrin. He said, “Turkey has become an essential power in Sochi and this power is killing dozens of Kurdish children every day. Russia by colluding with Turkey has disqualified itself as a broker.”

Representatives of rebel groups from Idlib, the most heavily embattled Syrian province, walked out Tuesday, in protest against what they called Moscow’s double-dealing. They claimed they had proof of a secret deal between Putin and Erdogan which gave Turkey free rein to attack the Kurds in northern Syria, while keeping their hands off Idlib. “We are not a rubber stamp for secret deals behind our backs,” they said.

In all these circumstances, the Russian organizers saw that the chances of carrying consensual resolutions was nil and, in any case, none would have survived long enough to be implemented.

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