Russia’s showcase Syrian peace conference in Sochi teetered on farce when opposition delegates refused to leave the airport and the Russian foreign minister was heckled during his opening speech over civilian deaths.
Large numbers of Syrian opposition delegates, including the UN-recognized negotiating body of the Syrian opposition, also boycotted the talks, as did the main Syrian Kurdish groups that control as much as a quarter of Syria.
Syrian opposition groups that did travel to Russia then refused to leave Sochi airport in protest against pro-regime symbols, including the flag of the Assad regime that festooned the airport, billboards and conference hall.
The groups, backed by Turkey, said promises given to them about the neutral symbols surrounding the conference had been broken by the Russian organizers.
They also complained about the continued bombardment of the Syrian town of Idlib.
But Russia insisted that the Syrian national dialogue congress, as it describes the conference, achieved its aim of starting a dialogue among the Syrian people.
Russia’s main stated aim for the conference, attended by nearly 1,500 delegates, was to endorse a largely preselected group to be appointed to run a committee on a new constitution for Syria.
The committee will need to resolve issues such as the role of the army, the degree of federalism, methods of elections and the extent to which the country is governed by a parliament or an executive president.
The United Nations had been concerned that the conference was a Russian attempt to circumvent the UN peace process in Geneva. It had sought assurances that the Sochi event would be a one-off before agreeing that Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, would attend. The UN wants assurances that Russia recognizes the UN is still responsible for drafting a constitution and the mediation process.
Countries including the US, the UK and France are not in Sochi because they say the Syrian government is refusing to properly engage with the opposition.
Western diplomats argue privately there is no purpose selecting regime loyalists to write a new constitution that has no credibility with the main opposition forces, largely entrenches Assad’s powers and does not lead to the return of millions of Syrian refugees.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, dismissed the Sochi initiative, saying: “The resolution of the crisis will happen urgently under United Nations auspices in Geneva, France has that as an immediate objective. It’s not happening in Sochi and it must happen in Geneva.”
It is possible that the argument over attendees will have reduced the conference’s impact and make it more probable that Russia sticks to its assurance that Sochi was designed to supplement and not supplant the UN process.
Although Assad is winning back territory with Russia’s help, the US has insisted it will not bring home its 2,000 troops until agreement is reached at the UN to hold fresh, UN-supervised, presidential elections.
In a message to the participants, read by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Vladimir Putin said: “Today all the conditions are in place to turn this tragic page in Syria’s history.”
Russia said key opposition leaders had attended including Qadri Jamil from “the Moscow platform”, Randa Kassis from “the Astana platform”, Ahmad Jarba, the head of Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, Haytham Manna, from National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, and representatives of the Civil Movement.
Kassis said: “Those that do not want to come to Sochi are irresponsible. They don’t come because other countries are telling them not to do so.”
She said constitutional issues needed resolution, such as whether the state will be secular, but did not rule out further peace meetings in Sochi.
Jamil said the conference had started a dialogue among the Syrian people and urged observers not to take much notice of disagreements between the delegates.