Neither Damascus’ participation — with a delegation of about 1,200 people — nor the boycott of the opposition High Negotiations Committee of the Sochi peace talks were not enough to change the outcome of the conference, as the active negotiations were going on in rooms and side tracks without Syrians, where the three “guarantor” countries — Russia, Iran and Turkey — agreed with the United Nations to formulate a closing statement, with each country nominating 50 members to the constitutional committee to be blessed by the international envoy Staffan de Mistura, resembling a tripartite division of the future Syrian constitution.
The Syrian government delegation could not take responsibility for the failure of Sochi, which was overseen by President Vladimir Putin ahead of the presidential elections on March 18. Damascus was angered by the conference’s results, one of the manifestations of which was that all the official and loyalist media in the Syrian capital published the closing statement without its introduction or political summary, and distorted the official document agreed upon by the guarantors’ statement.
According to information obtained by Asharq al-Awsat, Sochi’s results were achieved before the beginning of the conference, as marathon talks were held between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the end of last week, after the opposition High Negotiations Committee decided to boycott the conference. The United Nations tied its participation to a series of conditions, including that the conference was limited to a single session without forming institutions or committees, or repeating the scenario of the series of Astana meetings, in addition to the international envoy deciding the references, names and mechanisms of the constitutional committee process and selecting its members from a list submitted by the three guarantor countries, while also approving the 12 political principles which de Mistura had prepared and the head of the government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, had refused to discuss in the previous two rounds of Geneva talks.
The positive surprise was that the agreement between the United Nations and Moscow was realized. Attempts were made to change the text of the draft agreed upon but they did not succeed, especially when de Mistura raised the possibility of pulling out the morning of the opening. Therefore, in practice the objections and demands from members of the delegation coming from Damascus and the boycott of members of the armed groups and their return from the Sochi airport to Ankara did not have an impact, as the Turkish delegation undertook to speak in the opposition’s name, while Tehran and Moscow spoke for Damascus.
The Iranian news agency IRNA and the official Syrian news agency SANA yesterday published a closing statement for Sochi according to their interpretations, with the statement devoid of the introduction and summary which discuss a mechanism for forming the constitutional committee. SANA reported that “it was agreed that the ratio in the committee to discuss the current constitution was three supported by the government and three for other parties, with the committee comprised of 150 members, delegates to the Syrian-Syrian National Dialogue conference, with a chairman, his deputy and the secretary-general selected from the composition of the committee.” According to SANA’s interpretation, committee members shall take “a majority vote about the need for assistance from experts by way of offering consultation to the committee members.”
SANA also altered the closing statement, reporting that “it stressed the importance of preserving the army and armed forces and that it carry out its duties in accordance with the constitution, including protecting the national borders and people from foreign threats, and to fight terrorism to protect the citizens, wherever required, and for security and intelligence institutions to focus on preserving national security and working in accordance with the law.” The official document of the Sochi conference stipulated “building a strong army based on efficiency and carrying out its duties in accordance with the constitution” and that “the national security and intelligence agencies work to protect the country’s security in accordance with the principles of rule of law and protecting human rights according to the text of the constitution and the law, and the use of force must be limited to authorization from the relevant state institutions.”
This position reflected anger in Damascus at the results of the conference, for which officials tried to place red lines before participants traveled from the Syrian capital to the Russian resort city, compared with Iranian silence and partial publishing of the closing statement. A Western official said that Tehran “surprised those in attendance by accepting the statement in Sochi” before pointing to the Iranian media publishing the Damascus interpretation of the statement.
In contrast, Ankara announced its satisfaction with the conference’s results through a call between presidents Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on its results and the “constructive approach.” A Turkish official said: “The most important results of the conference were the call for establishing a constitutional committee and selection of a group composed of 150 nominees for this committee, as the Turkish delegation which had been authorized to represent opposition groups that did not attend the conference submitted a list of 50 nominees in consultation with the opposition.” It is expected that de Mistura will form the constitution committee “seeking proportional representation of the opposition” and Ankara “will closely monitor the process of establishing the constitutional committee as a guarantor for the opposition.”
Western countries which participated as observers are monitoring the coming phase and the extent Moscow fulfills the results of the conference and uses its influence over Damascus and Tehran, which want to buy time until after Putin’s election on March 18 for Moscow to officially present a list of 150 nominees to de Mistura in order to begin his process of selection 45-50 members from the list of the guarantors, experts and politicians from abroad.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.