The UN must not attend Vladimir Putin’s Syria peace conference, leading Syrian groups urge
Dozens of Syria’s leading civil society groups have warned that Vladimir Putin wants to use his planned peace conference to bypass the UN-led peace process in order entrench President Bashar al-Assad in power.
The 120 organisations inside the Working Group for Syria are urging Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, not to attend the conference set for the end of January, saying it would represent a “dangerous departure from the [UN-led] Geneva process”.
Putin, the Russian president, is set to host the two-day Syrian Congress on National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
He is planning to send out over 1,700 invitations to Syrian groups, including to some members of the Syrian official opposition. Many opposition groups have already said they will not attend.
De Mistura has not definitively confirmed whether he will attend, and said he is opposed to anything that cuts across the UN process.
But he may not want to alienate Putin by boycotting the talks, since he needs Russia to put pressure on Assad to show flexibility if the stalled UN talks are to make progress.
The last round of talks ended in failure before Christmas as the Assad regime refused to negotiate and instead focused on chalking up continued military victories.
The Working Group for Syria’s president, Bassam al-Kuwaitii, claimed the Sochi conference was designed to set up a process to ratify minor constitutional changes.
Those changes will leave Assad in power before Syrian elections conducted on the same undemocratic basis as previous elections held by the regime, it said.
“The very fact that the congress is to have 1,700 attendees over two days shows that no genuine negotiations are planned,” he said.
In a joint statement, the working group said: “Russia’s military intervention in Syria and its repeated use of the veto at the United Nations Security Council makes Russia a party to the conflict.
“Given its actions in Syria, Russia cannot be regarded as either a neutral mediator or a fair convenor of a national dialogue process. The only process that is legitimate or credible is the UN-led process.”
The working group’s fear is that de Mistura by attending the Sochi event will lend credibility to a process that will reject the long-established UN goal of starting a new constitutional era with the appointment of a fresh transitional government.
The working group said it is critical that the UN continues to reaffirm the primacy of existing Security Council resolutions on Syria, “which established a clear sequencing for a credible political process, starting with political transition, followed by a constitutional referendum and free and fair elections”.
Russia insisted that Sochi is a complement to the Geneva process, but has been less clear why it wants to start a new parallel process sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The Sochi conference is also seen as a diplomatic showpiece to demonstrate Putin’s ability to wield influence in the Middle East ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in March.
But its preparation has also become bogged down in an increasingly open dispute between Turkey and Russia, two of the conference sponsors.
Russia has given assurances to Kurdish People’s Protection Units that Syrian Kurds will be entitled to attend the conference, even though the exact status under which they would appear is unclear.
Turkey fiercely opposes the attendance of the main Kurdish groups in Syria, saying the military forces are under the same command structure as those fighting for independence inside Turkey.
In a further dispute with Russia, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reaffirmed late last month Turkey will not countenance Assad remaining in power.
He said: “It is definitely not possible to move ahead in Syria with al-Assad … How can we embrace the future with a Syrian leader who has killed nearly one million of his citizens?”