While presenting the Syrian National Dialogue Conference that Russia is planning to host in the resort city of Sochi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 10 January that the conference would contribute to the parallel UN-sponsored talks on Syria in Geneva. It would also “teach a lesson” to the Syrian opposition that has been demanding the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, he said.
Lavrov made his comments during talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohamed Javad Zarif, and both Russia and Iran are allies of the Al-Assad regime. His comments on the Syrian opposition, the first direct threat by a senior Russian official, were a watershed since Moscow has tried to pose as an impartial mediator between the regime and opposition despite its clear support for the regime.
It has also imposed itself as a guarantor of truce agreements and hosted conferences in Moscow and Astana to bring all sides in the conflict closer together, under the pretense that it is an honest broker in the conflict whose goal is to prevent the fragmentation of Syria and its collapse into a failed state.
The Russian threat came after several leading opposition figures refused to attend the Sochi Conference, including figures from military and political factions. This has angered the Russian authorities as Russian President Vladimir Putin has personally invested in the conference. The Russian Defence Ministry has the responsibility to make it a success, and invitations have been sent in the Defence Ministry’s name rather than by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The Sochi Conference is important for Putin in that he needs a success on the foreign-policy front before Russia’s upcoming presidential elections in order to pose as a leading figure abroad. Russia is suffering from economic troubles at home that Putin has been unable to resolve while in power.
The Russian threats are aimed at the moderate opposition military factions that have already announced they will boycott the Sochi Conference. They are also levelled against grassroots forces inside and outside the country, such as law associations, the judiciary, journalists, women’s groups and others.
All of these have rejected the Sochi Conference, saying that anyone from the opposition who does attend will be subject at least to ostracism as this would be an act hostile to the Syrian Revolution. The Russian threats are also aimed at key political forces recognised internationally such as the Alliance of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has officially declared it will oppose the conference.
The opposition has many reasons for not going to Sochi, including that Russia is suspected of wanting to launch a new negotiations track to replace the Geneva Conferences that are supported by the UN and have guaranteed the political transition in Syria.
The opposition believes Moscow is focused on holding a conference attended by 1,500 Syrian figures who do not have anything in common – one third are from the regime and another third make up a miscellaneous group hardly representative of most Syrians – and that does not have a clear agenda or planned outcome.
This means that discussions at Sochi will be futile, the opposition says, the conference being simply designed to keep Al-Assad in power.
Various Western countries also oppose the Sochi Conference, among them France and the US. UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has said that Russia must put pressure on the Syrian regime to reach a peace agreement and “not waste time” on further discussion.
He said that achieving peace in Syria “requires pushing the regime to accept a new constitution and new elections under UN supervision,” another way of emphasising that the UN-sponsored Geneva track remains the main course for the negotiations.
Lavrov only threatened to “teach a lesson” to the opposition and not all those demanding Al-Assad’s departure, as this would logically also include many regional countries, major powers and the UN. Moscow is trying hard to reach a solution in Syria that is compatible with its interests, and since its direct military intervention to shore up the regime in September 2015 it has relied on heavy airstrikes, long-range missiles, and allegedly even banned weapons such as phosphorous weapons to force the opposition to surrender.
Russia has not complied with international rules of engagement, and it has bombed civilian targets including schools, according to Syrian and international monitors. It has destroyed 119 medical facilities and bombed aid convoys and residential areas. It has provided political cover for the regime at the UN by vetoing UN Security Council Resolutions.
The regime has made considerable concessions to the Russians in return for keeping it in power. Opposition figure Abdel-Basset Sida, a member of the opposition coalition and former chair of the Syrian National Council, said “there is pressure on Russia to hold the Sochi Conference, and it will encourage regional countries backing the opposition to attend. Russia wants to take advantage of the circumstances and come up with a solution based on what it has been doing in Syria for the past three years.”
“It wants a constituent assembly in Syria to draft a superficial constitution for an intelligence-military regime that will have the last word on all decisions. There could also be a committee for local, parliamentary and presidential elections that paves the way for legitimising Al-Assad’s rule,” Sida said.
Russia has not been shy about making direct verbal threats to the opposition, and it has not been shy about testing its weapons in what it has described as “real war conditions” in Syria. Chair of the Russian Armed Forces Scientific Committee Igor Makuchev said the Russian military had tested weapons in Syria and had modified plans to develop them further.
Moscow has always claimed it has been targeting the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and not the opposition to the regime, but Lavrov’s recent threats reveal the opposite. Russia is a fully-fledged partner of the regime in the war in Syria, and as such it can never be an impartial mediator.
Reacting to the Russian pressure, the opposition Higher Negotiations Commission has said it may change its mind about attending the Sochi Conference even though military groups still insist they will boycott the meeting. Civil society groups have also said they will stay away, a rare indication of opposition currents and forces uniting on a single platform.
In the absence of such groups, the Sochi Conference cannot be anything other than a failure, perhaps forcing the Russian position towards international guarantees and the Geneva process.
In the meantime, Lavrov has made Russia’s position in Syria more difficult by so starkly allying it to the regime. Most opposition figures now see Russia as the enemy and a partner in the Al-Assad regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.