In the last ten days of December 2017, the Syrian opposition went on the offensive to reject the Russian-sponsored Sochi Conference on the crisis in the country scheduled for the end of January 2018. They warned against following Russia’s lead since Sochi could seal the fate of the opposition and surrender it to Russia, an ally of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Many Syrian opposition activists have called for a boycott of the Sochi Conference, warning that it will impose a Russian solution and divide the opposition ranks. The conference would impose a sham constitution keeping Al-Assad in power, destroy the Geneva process and legalise the Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria, they warned.
Russia has used its veto power 11 times in the UN Security Council to defend the Al-Assad regime and block investigations into its activities. Moscow has also provided Damascus with military advisers, weapons and troops since September 2015, and it has participated in the blanket destruction in Syria by indiscriminately bombing areas where the armed opposition is present.
It has also foiled attempts to hold the regime accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons.
Russia has promoted the Sochi Conference by saying that one third of the participants will be from inside Syria, meaning they are either loyal to the regime or live in fear of it, and one third will be Syrians living abroad, making it difficult to distinguish between the true and the sham opposition to the regime.
With so many participants taking part over a short period of time, the majority of opinions will not be heard, observers say.
The opposition believes the Sochi Conference aims to divide the opposition and arrive at a new constitution that guarantees the foreign “occupation” of Syria and allows the country’s security agencies to supervise any future elections and block UN monitoring.
Russia is working on the Sochi agenda, drawing up its participants without external input. This contradicts the Geneva process on Syria that began six years ago and implies that Moscow wants to shut it down since the Geneva Conferences on Syria called for the creation of a transitional governing body in Syria with a full mandate.
Russia is trying to destroy any political transition to a democratic regime in Syria, substituting it for the sake of negotiations about power-sharing and the distribution of posts. Its aim is to replace an international solution with a Russian one that explicitly cements Al-Assad’s rule and regime.
Rejecting the conference is not limited to opposition activists alone. Some 40 opposition military groups have also declared their rejection of Sochi, viewing Russia as a hostile country and one committed to supporting the regime militarily and defending its policies.
The armed Syrian opposition does not see Russia pressuring the regime to reach a political settlement, despite claims it will guarantee any solution it sponsors.
In the wake of the announcement of the Sochi Conference, Syrian opposition figures decided to tour European and Arab capitals to assert their rejection of the conference and its negative impact on the country’s present and future.
They aim also to meet with Turkish officials to confirm their refusal to attend the Sochi Conference on the grounds that it threatens the entire Syrian cause. If they are successful, this will be the first serious attempt by the opposition to put pressure on Turkey.
Although Moscow wants the conference to break away from the Geneva track, in order to give it legitimacy Russia has said it will be held under the umbrella of the UN and has invited UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to attend.
It has invited Western countries including the US, but none of these have yet declared a clear position and are most likely to attend as observers to avoid commitment to conference decisions.
The Russian Ministry of Defence is taking the lead on Sochi, not the Foreign Ministry, because Moscow believes it has accomplished its military mission in Syria and wants to reap the rewards of its successes.
Some Russian moderates believe Moscow will throw its weight behind the conference even if attendance is disappointing because Russian President Vladimir Putin announced it himself and wants to emphasise his international role ahead of next year’s Russian elections.
Iran is concerned at Russia’s actions, fearing that Moscow could abandon it, especially since Russia is using Iran to put pressure on Turkey to ease its position on Al-Assad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently again described Al-Assad as a “criminal” who had “no place in Syria’s future.”
If the globally recognised Syrian opposition made up of the Higher Negotiations Commission or the Coalition of Revolutionary Forces does not attend the Sochi Conference, it will likely fail even if Russia promotes it as a success.
Boycotting the conference gives the opposition a strong hand, and its members have said that anyone attending it will be representing themselves and not any opposition body. The opposition Bar Association has threatened to prosecute anyone who attends the Sochi Conference, describing it as a “serious threat to the Syrian Revolution” aiming to dilute its demands and legitimise Al-Assad’s leadership.
The opposition wants the UN and the Arab League to continue on their path towards resolving the Syrian crisis based on the Geneva I Declaration and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which guarantee the formation of a transitional governing body with a full mandate.
It has called on the international community to force Russia and other countries to abide by international decisions, seeing the Geneva Declarations and the relevant Security Council Resolutions as the only framework for talks that can lead to a political solution in Syria.
If the opposition boycotts the Sochi Conference, then Geneva will continue to dominate the process and Russia will be forced to return to this UN forum which is supported by the international community. If it attends it, it would be abandoning Geneva and its decisions, making Sochi the new basis for a solution in Syria that will only deliver cosmetic reforms.