, SOCHI, Russian Federation, Jan 29 – Delegates on Monday arrived for the first Syria peace congress in Russia, but expectations for the dialogue were tempered after the war-torn country’s main opposition group said it would boycott the event.
Regime-backer Moscow has invited 1,600 people to the talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as part of a broader push to consolidate its influence in the region and start hammering out a path to a political solution to end the bloody conflict.
Only a fraction of the invitees are set to participate in the event, however, according to a list of participants seen by AFP which has about 350 people on it.
The aim of the Tuesday congress is to bring Syria closer to creating a post-war constitution, after two days of separate UN-backed talks in Vienna last week closed without any sign the warring sides had met face-to-face to discuss the groundwork for the document.
The Kremlin has downplayed expectations of the event, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling journalists Monday that “breakthroughs in the task of political regulation in Syria are hardly possible.”
He added however that under-representation will not “disrupt this congress or undermine its importance,” calling the Sochi talks a “very important” step toward peace.
The Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), the country’s main opposition group, said following the talks in Vienna on Thursday and Friday that it would not attend the Sochi congress.
The SNC accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian backers of continuing to rely on military might — and showing no willingness to enter into honest negotiations — as the war in which more than 340,000 people have already died approaches its seventh year.
More than three dozen other Syrian rebel groups, including influential Islamists, previously said they would not come to Sochi.
And authorities from Syria’s Kurdish autonomous region said Sunday they would not participate because of an ongoing offensive on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin by Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels and is co-sponsoring the congress along with regime-backer Iran.
Suspicion from the West
Moscow, which has spearheaded rounds of talks from the start of last year in Kazakhstan’s Astana, initially hoped to convene the congress in Sochi last November but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors.
Western powers have viewed the Russian peace initiative with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks with a view to carving out a settlement that strengthens its ally Assad.
But a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the weekend he would send his Syria peace negotiator to Sochi after receiving assurances the conference would not seek to sideline the organisation’s own talks.
Staffan de Mistura arrived in Sochi Monday, Russian agencies reported.
Russia has long sought UN participation in the Sochi congress to lend credibility to its diplomatic efforts, and is reportedly hoping to establish a committee to create a constitution with UN-backing.
Moscow’s decision to launch a bombing campaign to support Assad in September 2015 — Russia’s first major military operation abroad since Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 — is widely seen as a turning point in the multi-front conflict that helped shore up the Syrian president.
After two years of military support for the Syrian regime, President Vladimir Putin announced in December last year the partial withdrawal of forces from the country, saying their task had been largely completed.
The Syrian war, which has seen millions displaced, began in 2011 as the regime crushed anti-government protests.