This article was published in Arab News on February 5, 2018.
Ordinary Syrians paying the price as peace process drags on
The Syrian National Dialogue Congress was held last week in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi and ended with modest results, mainly because of the absence of the main opposition groups. The meeting was convened thanks to Russia’s persistent efforts. The US, France and the UK are cool to the Astana and Sochi processes and did not participate. They believe that the focus should remain on the Geneva process under the UN’s auspices.
Turkey was also ambivalent, for it is one of the guarantors of the Astana and Sochi processes but was reluctant to participate in the Sochi meeting because of the participation of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Russia made an effort to dispel Turkey’s concerns by changing the name of the delegation. Instead of the PYD, the hosts proposed “The List of Participants from the Autonomous Administration and Political Entities (of northern Syria).” This list was going to include the representatives of Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Chechens and Circassians. There would be no mention of the PYD, and the Kurds took care not to put on the list any names that would be opposed by Turkey. Eventually, however, the Kurds did not participate because of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin.
The Syrian opposition groups backed by Turkey traveled to Russia but refused to go to the conference center because Syrian flags and pro-regime symbols were displayed in the airport building. Turkey’s efforts to persuade them to participate in the meeting failed and they were flown back to Ankara.
For the first time, both the opposition that was present at the meeting and the government demonstrated a genuine eagerness to include in their future agenda the discussion of substantive subjects such as the role of the army, the degree of federalism, the methods of future presidential and parliamentary elections, and the role of parliament and the president.
The three sponsor countries of the Sochi meeting — Russia, Turkey and Iran — will now put forward a list of 50 people each and UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will use these lists to pick out names for the constitution drafting committee. No country will have veto power on the names to be included in, or excluded from, the committee.
Turkish leaders faced with a difficult dilemma between country’s own interests, its position in the Euro-Atlantic community and nascent good relations with Russia.
The results of the meeting may be modest, but other meetings in a similar vein failed to obtain even such modest results.
There are also hurdles in the road ahead, the main ones being the conflicts of interest among the major actors. The US does not want to lose to Russia the strategic advantage it used to enjoy in the region, while the expansion of Iran’s influence and the security of Israel are also important factors in its policies. These are among the reasons why it relies on the Kurdish card. France and the UK, meanwhile, do not want to lose the colonial advantages they benefitted from for decades.
Russia needs in Syria a government that will contribute to the consolidation of its presence in the country, while it possibly wants to establish a presence in other Middle Eastern countries. Moscow’s approach stands on more solid ground because its presence in Syria has more legitimacy than the other foreign actors, except Iran. Second, its approach is more inclusive. It does not have as many links to the Kurds as the US has, but Russia has always been a continuous supporter of the Kurdish cause and it does not want to lose this.
The absence of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, recognized as the opposition’s legitimate negotiating body by the UN, is a major shortcoming for successful progress of the normalization process in Syria.
The absence of the Kurds is also important for three reasons: First, they have already established some sort of local administration in their region; second, they are strongly supported by the US; and third, they control one-third of the Syrian territory and almost all of the oil and gas reserves.
The tasks that Turkey is expected to fulfil are also complicated. It will be faced with a difficult dilemma between its own interests, its position in the Euro-Atlantic community and nascent good relations with Russia. It is unclear whether the opposition supported by Turkey will be willing to take part in the UN-sponsored process after they refused to participate in Sochi for a trivial excuse such as the Syrian flags in Sochi airport. Ankara now has a daunting task: To persuade the opposition fighters to participate in the Geneva process, while it will do the opposite for the Kurds.
The most deplorable aspect of the question is that, while the interests of the major actors will be clashing in Syria, the Syrian people will have to pay the price.