Critical week for Syria as parallel talks get under way

With a flurry of diplomatic activity, two separate summits on Syria are to be staged this week to put decisive pressure on both sides to end the civil war and thrash out a new constitution that is likely to leave President Bashar al-Assad in power.

With Islamic State crushed and the democratic opposition to Assad also in military retreat, the three key regional powers – Russia, Iran and Turkey – will meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday to discuss how to wind down hostilities and draw up a political settlement.

On the same day but separately, as many as 30 groups opposed to Assad will gather in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, for three days of talks aimed at forming a broad negotiating team before UN peace talks resume in Geneva on 28 November.

Russia, which holds a military advantage in Syria, appears to want to bypass the UN process and focus on a solution drawn up with the other regional guarantors, Iran and Turkey.

In preparation for the Sochi summit, foreign ministers from the three countries met in the Turkish resort of Antalya on Sunday, where they floated plans for a Syrian Congress on National Dialogue, to which they envisioned a large array of opposition groups would attend.

Significantly, ministers discussed the possibility of Kurdish groups being invited to the congress – something to which the Turks were until recently opposed to. Recommendations on the future role of the Kurds will be sent for the three leaders – Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani – to approve on Wednesday.

It was also agreed that chiefs of staff from the three militaries should meet soon to discuss the possibility of deploying their forces as ceasefire guarantors in fresh “de-escalation zones”. So far four zones have been set up in Idlib province, northern Homs, eastern Ghouta, and the southern border with Jordan

The main Syrian opposition groups, under the umbrella of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), are opposed to the Russian timetable; they still put their faith in the UN’s Geneva process, since its avowed intention is to lead to UN-backed power-sharing and elections.

But in Riyadh, the HNC will be pressed by Russia – and its chief backer, Turkey – to compromise and to broaden its negotiating team. So far the HNC has resisted mounting international pressure to accept that Assad need only relinquish power if he is voted out in fair, UN-supervised elections.

Russian diplomacy is working within its own constraints. It was forced to postpone the first proposed congress, initially set for 18 November, after Turkey objected to Kurdish attendance and the HNC boycotted entirely, characterising the talks as “the regime talking to the regime”.

Plans for a new congress, in order to begin drawing up a new Syrian constitution, are likely to be revived at Sochi, where Putin plays host to Erdoğan and Rouhani.

All three leaders will arrive in Sochi with their own agendas. Iran seeks approval for its troops to remain in Syria, including close to the Israeli border with Israel – an outcome that deeply alarms not just Israel, but Saudi Arabia.

Turkey wants Russia’s backing for its plan to weaken the Kurds in north-western Syria – notably the town of Tel Rifaat in Afrin, the smallest of three Syrian Kurdish cantons.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, claimed on Sunday that 20% of Syria was now occupied by Kurds, which he called “a very dangerous situation”.

Putin will not wish to abandon Syria’s Kurds,but he and Erdoğan have invested heavily in each other after backing different sidesduring most of the six-year war. Sochi will be the sixth meeting between Putin and Erdoğan this year; they have also had 13 phone calls.

Putin must decide whether his patchwork solution of de-escalation zones will work, and whether he sees any value in continuing with the UN’s diplomatic track.

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has repeatedly told Putin he needs the democratic legitimacy of the UN to end the war, and the support of the political opposition to prevent violence continuing.


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