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Syria will continue to bleed even after Sochi

Jan 30,2018 - Last updated at Jan 30,2018

The Syrian regime has never had it so good; a reversal in fortunes since it faced an almost certain debacle in the late summer of 2015 before a Russian military intervention in September of that year provided a new lease on life. That was a game changer then; in a military sense. Now it stands to reap the fruits of that intervention at Sochi, the Black Sea Russian resort, where about 1,500 Syrians, mostly loyalists to Damascus, started on Monday what Moscow has called "Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue". 

Regardless of what Russia, Turkey and Iran, under whose auspices the meeting is taking place, hope to achieve from the two-day event, one issue will not be on the conference's agenda: The fate of President Bashar Assad. Otherwise, there will be speeches, debates, behind-the-scene consultations and a final communiqué. There will be a constitutional committee; to write a new constitution for the country, and a bashful reference to UN resolutions including 2254 on Syria. There might even be a commitment to the Geneva process, which after many rounds has achieved absolutely nothing.

The rehabilitation of the regime is President Vladimir Putin's immediate goal. Sochi will come to represent a victory lap for the Russian leader, who, in under three years, was able to turn things around in the war-torn country and build an alliance with former foes. In the process Moscow has bolstered its military presence along the shores of the warm waters of the Eastern Mediterranean; a geopolitical feat for Russia which has become a major regional player. Also, Putin was able emphasise one basic principle: That only the Syrian people can decide their future. Russia has always pointed to Libya, where foreign powers helped topple Muammar Qadhafi, resulting in a raging civil war, anarchy, rise of Islamist radicalism and the collapse of the country's institutions. Russia was not going to allow that to happen in Syria.

Ironically, that is precisely what has been happening in Syria. The Syrian uprising has been ruthlessly quashed by the regime, resulting in hundreds of thousands of mostly civilian deaths, the displacement of millions and the destruction of most of the country's main cities and its infrastructure. To be fair, foreign powers did step in to finance and arm rebel groups, including those associated with Al Qaeda. Syria had become one large battlefield involving foreign extremists, CIA-backed rebels and Gulf financed groups.

But even as the delegates were arriving in Sochi, Syrian and Russian jets were pounding targets in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib province. Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army fighters were pushing towards Kurdish-held Afrin in an operation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to extend to the Syrian-Iraqi borders. US troops were holding their positions in northeastern Syria and vowing to stand by their Syrian Kurdish allies. US presence in Syria, condemned by Damascus and Moscow, raised the fears of a de facto partition.

And the all-Syria congress in Sochi was missing some important bodies that claim to represent if not all then most Syrians. The main opposition bloc, the Syrian Negotiations Commission, had voted to boycott the conference although some members will be present on individual basis. France and the US have opted not to attend, while the UN peace envoy, Staffan de Mistura, will be there as well as representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq. The Kurds, who are facing the Turkish onslaught, will not be in Sochi as well.

The rest of those attending are basically regime loyalists and in that sense the so-called dialogue will be mostly one-sided. Any agreements that will come out of the meeting will be denounced as illegitimate by the opposition.

So while the Sochi meeting will be seen as a breakthrough by the Russians, who will be asserting their leadership role in Syria, it will hardly push towards national reconciliation or chart a path towards a political settlement. And for the regime, Sochi will become the only acceptable forum to negotiate the future of the country; thus rendering the Geneva process obsolete.

Regardless of what the Russians hope to achieve in Sochi they must realise — at some stage in the future — that without US and European involvement and especially UN role, no political settlement will ever be able to address a number of fundamental and intricate issues that include long-term foreign presence in Syria, rebuilding the country, return of refugees and the displaced and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. No genuine national reconciliation can be achieved without dealing with these issues. To paper over the cracks will not achieve healing and eventual restoration of normalcy in Syria.

Putin will soon discover that a military intervention, such as the one he undertook in Syria, differs dramatically from forcing a superficial political formula. Syria will continue to bleed even after Sochi!

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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Sad to see the Kingdom of Jordan sell its soul to AQ!

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