Last November, Russia declared a special initiative to hold a conference on Syria — called initially the Syrian People's Congress and then the Syrian National Dialogue Congress — in the Russian city Sochi with tripartite sponsorship comprising Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.
There are many legitimate and important questions concerning the value such a conference can add to the political process conducted under the auspices of the UN, to apply Security Council Resolution 2254, known as the Geneva talks.
Just presenting an alternative to the dialogue between Syrians in Geneva is definitely made at its expense; it negatively affects its already stumbling progress.
This was quite obvious in the eighth round held between 28 November and 6 December resulting in nothing at all, with matters at a standstill in the face of an insoluble stalemate.
At first it was said that the Sochi conference, slated to be held at the end of January, would convene for just one day for the purpose of supporting peaceful resolution, Syria’s unity and sovereign institutions.
To be sure, the initiative contributes in speeding up the Geneva talks. However, this symbolic objective was transcended. For in the tripartite meeting held in Astana late December between the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey, the countries guaranteeing the de-escalation zones delineated several months ago, the parties agreed to organise the National Dialogue Congress in a way that leads to writing a constitution and setting-up an electoral system through forming committees for that purpose.
The Russian deputy foreign minister clarified this by saying that a constitutional committee will be formed in which between 1,500 and 1,700 persons representing the whole spectrum of the Syrian people will participate through selections made by the three capitals.
He added they will obtain a general mandate from the Syrian people and since they are the people’s representatives they will be the source of legislation in all matters, including constitutional reform.
In a way of evading blame, the Russian official said that these groups can convene later in Geneva to write down the constitution and set-up an electoral system and then establish new sovereign institutions based on these elections. In this case, the function of the Geneva talks will be struck at the core, as well as the legitimacy of the opposition. What was announced was that the opposition was invited and has not decided yet to participate.
If some members of this opposition participate in writing the constitution, the electoral system and other issues, what can they contribute to negotiations in Geneva under the UN umbrella? Will Geneva merely be a rubber stamp to endorse conclusions reached in Sochi?
Such questions point to the crisis of the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the Geneva talks on the other. What’s more important is that this all reflects Russian shrewdness that would change completely all political equations to rebuild a new Syria, as it did when it intervened militarily at the end of October 2015 causing a substantial change in the field in favour of the Syrian army and its allies, paving the way to defeat the Islamic State group, and cornering Al-Nusra Front in Idlib province and its countryside. This group has changed its name in order to escape the UN list of terrorist organisations.
At the same time, Russia is directing a message to the Syrian opposition abroad that it isn’t the only representative of the Syrian people, that there are other forces that can participate in forging Syria’s future according to the principles of the unity of the land and preserving the state. Consequently, the Syrian opposition may move towards more realism instead of adhering to impossible and unacceptable conditions.
In spite of this it can be said that a certain degree of conflict that may take place between the paths of Geneva and Sochi. For in addition to distracting efforts seeking a comprehensive political settlement, any agreements or understandings reached by the Sochi conference will be subject to realising consensus between the three guaranteeing countries — Russia, Turkey and Iran.
It is known that there are disputes among these countries, especially concerning the participation of the Kurds, who are a large popular, political and military force that cannot be ignored. Both Turkey and Iran refuse the participation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) because they view it as an extension of the Turkish-banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). They accept those they consider neutral Kurdish representatives. This is a condition that makes the success of representing all Syrian factions uncertain.
In the case of neutral Kurdish personalities being present, it is likely that they don’t enjoy popular influence similar to that of the (KDP). Hence, their participation will be symbolic, no more no less.
Supposing that the Sochi conference has achieved its symbolic and political objectives, conveying the results to the subsequent Geneva talks will be subject to two main conditions. The first is an American-Russian understanding to speed up the peace track. As for the second condition, it is concerned with the availability of more flexible approaches on both sides — the government delegation and that of the opposition in equal measure.
Perhaps the most important concession that the Syrian opposition should make is the condition regarding the departure of President Bashar Al-Assad from the entire process, accepting his existence at least in the transitional stage according to reasonable controls.
In return, the government delegation should interact with settlement terms, such as the constitution, elections and transitional government, as a whole integrated process aiming at constructing a totally new Syrian political system that allows all the Syrian people to participate in all sovereign institutions without restrictions.
In all cases, we are facing an alternative political process without any Arab participation, which most likely would lead to reproducing a new Syria different from the one we have known.
The writer is a political commentator.