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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Rocky Syria talks end in Russia, ignore key opposition demands

Reuters , Tuesday 30 Jan 2018
Sochi Conference
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) delivers a speech at the end of a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi on January 30, 2018 (Photo: AFP)
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A Syrian peace conference in Russia ended on Tuesday with a statement calling for democratic elections but ignoring key opposition demands after a day marred by squabbles and heckling of the Russian foreign minister.

The participants also agreed to set up a committee to rewrite the Syrian constitution at the conference, which much of the opposition said aimed to serve the interests of President Bashar al-Assad and his close ally, Moscow.

A final statement said Syrians must decide their future through elections, but did not say whether Syrian refugees would be allowed to take part, something sought by Assad's opponents and Western states. Syrians had the "exclusive right" to pick their political system free of foreign intervention, it added.

It also urged the preservation of security forces without calling for their reform, something the opposition has demanded.

"This conference is tailor-made for Assad and his terrorist regime," said Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in a Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group that operates in northern Syria.

"The Sochi statement does not concern us and is not even a subject of discussion."

Russia hosted what it called a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. After helping turn the tide of the war in Syria in Assad's favour, Moscow has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker.

However, the event was boycotted by the leadership of the Syrian opposition, while powers such as the United States, Britain and France stayed away because of what they said was the Syrian government's refusal to properly engage.

Western countries support a separate UN-mediated peace process, which has so far failed to yield progress towards ending a war that is entering its eighth year. The latest round of those talks took place in Vienna last week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov helped open the conference on Tuesday by reading out a statement from President Vladimir Putin saying the conditions were ripe for Syria to turn "a tragic page" in its history.

But some delegates stood up and began heckling him, accusing Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with its air strikes.

The incident was broadcast on Russian state TV where two security guards were shown approaching one man in the audience indicating that he should sit down.

Other delegates shouted out their support for Russia.

Flag Row

In a further setback, one group of delegates, which included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey, refused to leave Sochi airport until Syrian government flags and emblems - which they said were offensive - had been removed.

Ahmed Tomah, the head of the delegation, said his group had boycotted the congress and would fly back to Turkey because of the flag row and what he called broken promises to end the bombardment of civilians.

"We were surprised that none of the promises that were given had been kept, the ferocious bombing of civilians had not stopped. Nor were the flags and banners of the regime removed," he said in a video recorded at the airport.

Artyom Kozhin, a senior diplomat at the Russian Foreign Ministry, acknowledged there had been some complications.

"Some problems have arisen with a group of the armed opposition that has come from Turkey which has made its participation dependent on additional demands," Kozhin wrote on social media.

Lavrov had spoken by phone twice to his Turkish counterpart and been told that the problem would be resolved, said Kozhin.

Turkish and Iranian government delegations attended the congress, as did UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura who said the talks had been difficult.

Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian expert on the Middle East who serves as an adviser to de Mistura, told reporters the problems encountered by organisers had not tarnished the event.

"Nothing awful happened," said Naumkin. "Nobody is fighting anyone else. Nobody is killing anyone. These were standard working moments.

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