The Syrian National Congress was held in Sochi on January 30 and reportedly gathered close to 1,500 Syrians to kick-start the national dialogue by giving platform to the broader Syrian community. The Congress, it seems, had an ambition to become an umbrella platform that would bring together Syrians who participate in existing negotiating tracks, such as Geneva and Astana, as well give agency to those who have not had a chance to become part of any existing negotiating rounds and thus have no say in defining the future of the country. Participation of a large number of Syrian figures in the Congress perfectly matches up with the idea expressed in the UN Resolution 2254 that Syrians should be the ones deciding the future of the country and gives greater legitimization to the process of political settlement of the conflict.
Despite the fact that the conditions were seemingly in place for a successful discussion, the Congress was taken hostage by its own agenda. It seems that it was designed to meet too many objectives, both in Russia’s Syria policy as well as in its domestic politics ahead of the Presidential election. The work on the constitution is something that is called for in the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, so there is nothing controversial in that Russia is proposing a mechanism to kick-start that work.
Moscow first proposed a project of the Syrian Constitution in January 2017, which was rejected by the Syrian opposition, and most surprisingly was not taken positively by Russia’s allies. The project came after the signing of the Syria ceasefire agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran in December 2016, as Moscow was hoping to incentivize political resolution of the conflict. The ceasefire was ultimately derailed and Moscow took a lot of blows from the international community for alleged attempts to sabotage the Geneva process by unilaterally launching the drafting of the constitution.
The unsuccessful, albeit honest, attempt to revive political resolution led Russia to a realization that constitution drafting needs to be institutionalized. At the same time Moscow could not go about it by coercing political opposition into accepting the Russia-led constitution drafting process in the same way it has done in forcing the armed rebel groups into accepting the new status quo on the ground in Syria. There is a certain disconnect between Russia’s hard power instruments and its ability to spearhead political dialogue. These are the faultiness that Russia tried to overcome in Sochi by institutionalizing the process of constitution drafting.
Foreign governments as well as the Syrian opposition and the UN itself had fears that by holding Sochi Russia was going to marginalize the Geneva track of negotiations and all parties that take part in these talks. In reality, however, the opposite happened: By looking to deliver on Vladimir Putin’s promise to hold the Syrian Congress as a logical conclusion of the Syrian war Moscow had to try to secure the backing of all concerned parties. Russia, however, faced a dilemma from the very outset because by looking to hold the constitution drafting process as a parallel track to Geneva (something that loyalist opposition figures were insisting on), much like Astana, it was causing its outright rejection by the international community. Similarly, by seeking its inclusion in Geneva Russia was ultimately agreeing that the Moscow-initiated effort would fall under the control of the UN. As a result, the Russian government opted for a mix of both approaches that will hardly be conducive to the Geneva track of negotiations.
There is no doubt that the Syrian constitution will need to change drastically due to the war and as a means to end the war. The project of the constitution proposed by Russia in 2017 united the opposition and the loyalists in rejecting it. However, in private conversations a lot of opposition figures acknowledge that this project was an acceptable point of reference for a national debate on the future constitution. However, being an externally-imposed document, it immediately became a non-starter for many Syrians. What is more, some opposition figures argue that Syria does not need a new constitution and could do with an amended 2012 document. But for all of them the bottom line is that the work on the constitution is an issue of internal Syrian deliberation.
It seems that Russia learnt its lesson the hard way in January 2017 having had its project dismissed by virtually all sides to the Syrian conflict and decided to give Syrians a platform in Sochi to launch the discussion on the constitution. However, the political actors who are expected to play a role in the shaping of the transitional period in Syria, namely the High Negotiations Committee that represents the opposition and the Democratic Union Party that represents the Kurdish minority, did not attend the Congress. The participation in the Sochi Congress implied no institutional presence, meaning that neither the Syrian government nor the HNC were there in institutional capacity. The HNC did send three representatives to Sochi, including head of the so-called Moscow group of the opposition Qadri Jamil, which might help secure acceptance of the Sochi process by the opposition. However, the absence of Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition groups in Sochi might spell troubles for the Congress’ mission down the road.
Dropping the Kurds from the list of participants was Russia’s price to pay for Turkey’s backing the Congress. Turkey arguably played a key role in legitimizing the Congress but HNC low-key participation and complete absence of the Kurds at the end of the day may threaten the Russia-Turkey axis with Ankara not doing enough to secure high-level HNC participation in Sochi and doing all it could to bar the Kurds from participation.
There is a lot of skepticism as to how the results of the Sochi Congress could feed into the Geneva process. UN envoy for Syria Stefan De Mistura acknowledged the results of the Congress but expressed no obligation to follow them, only stating that he is intended to indicate how he is willing to proceed on the task mandated under the Congress declaration. The language of this statement is diplomatic enough to give a due credit to the Sochi effort and vague enough so as not to commit to the implementation of its results.
It is not only the hesitation of the Syria envoy to get the Sochi results on board of the Geneva process, but also the refusal of the Assad government to discuss the constitution outside Syria as well as conditions on the ground in Syria that may inhibit the establishment of the Constitutional Committee. In the run-up to the Sochi Congress the fighting in Syria significantly escalated not least due to the Assad government’s expansion into the Idlib de-escalation zone and Turkey’s incursion in Afrin. These developments have a distinct Aleppo taste to them, which may deter the Syrian opposition from entering into any substantive political talks for the time being. While this may be an acceptable outcome for Ankara that for the time being only seeks a military advance against the Kurds as a way of marketing its victory in Syria for the Turkish public, it is certainly bad news for Russia that bet its prestige on the success of the Sochi Congress.
The unintended consequence of opposition’s low-key representation at the Sochi Congress is arguably a blow to Russia’s position as a chief negotiator on Syria. The Astana process that propelled Moscow to the title of a leading mediator on military issues and showcased its ability to engage armed opposition and the government in diplomatic talks may have also led Russia to believe that it can equally as easily spearhead complex political negotiations. However, Moscow appeared less predisposed to exercising political clout when it comes to issues not involving hard power, just as it fails to rally support for its cause. This sets a potentially dangerous precedent for Russia and may impact its positioning vis-a-vis other international negotiators. In fact a new political plan to solve the Syrian conflict introduced by the United States, France, Jordan and the UK on the sidelines of a Paris meeting on chemical weapons in January that called for radical changes to the Syrian constitution may surprisingly gain traction.
There has been a lot of talk prior to the Sochi Congress as to whether it undermines the Geneva process. The results of this gathering unequivocally demonstrate that it is no threat to Geneva, but so is it unlikely to give a much needed boost to the political settlement. Rival sidekick tracks to the Geneva process that have started appearing lately are only indicative of the fact that the progress in military de-escalation in Syria has failed to facilitate political progress. It increasingly looks that the Syrian conflict has been pushed back to a year ago when fighting was the key defining element of the political process, the circumstances in which the drafting of the constitution is an untimely step.
First published in our partner RIAC