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Russia hosts showpiece Syria congress despite last-minute setbacks

By AFP

Added 30th January 2018 07:53 PM

Representatives of rebel groups flew into Sochi from Turkey late Monday but refused to leave the airport after seeing the symbol of the congress featured only the Syrian regime flag.

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Representatives of rebel groups flew into Sochi from Turkey late Monday but refused to leave the airport after seeing the symbol of the congress featured only the Syrian regime flag.

PIC: A man holds up a Syrian flag as attendees wait for the start of a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi on January 30, 2018. (AFP)

RUSSIA - Russia on Tuesday hosted a showpiece congress aimed at bringing Syria's seven-year war to an end, but hopes were low after rebels pulled out at the last minute following boycotts by the main opposition and Kurds.

Regime-backer Moscow says it invited 1,600 delegates to the meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as part of a broader push to consolidate its influence in the Middle East and start hammering out a political solution to the conflict.

An opening speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, delayed by two hours because of ongoing negotiations, was interrupted both by cries of "Long live Russia!" and angry heckling from Syrian delegates.

Reading out a letter from President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov called for the UN to play a leading role in any political settlement, following fears Russia is seeking to undermine separate UN-backed talks with a view to carving out a deal that strengthens Moscow's ally President Bashar al-Assad.

Representatives of rebel groups flew into Sochi from Turkey late Monday but refused to leave the airport after seeing the symbol of the congress featured only the Syrian regime flag.

A rebel source told AFP that Russian hosts had promised to change the symbol, which was displayed on posters in the airport as well as billboards on the road towards Sochi, and in the congress hall itself.

"We were surprised that none of the promises were fulfilled, the brutal bombardment on the civilians didn't stop, the regime flags weren't removed from the conference banners, in addition to the lack of diplomatic manners from the hosting state," the rebels at the airport said in a statement.

After negotiations overnight and into the next day, including phone calls between the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers, the rebels flew back to Turkey without visiting the congress.
- A new constitution -

The main aim of the talks is to establish a committee to create a post-war constitution for Syria with UN backing, according to a draft statement seen by AFP.

"We will have a new constitution and we will start a political process even if it takes more time than expected," said Randa Kassis, head of the Astana platform of the Syrian opposition, which is close to Russia, during a briefing on the sidelines of the congress.

But Ahmad al-Kuzbari, a deputy for the ruling Baath party, said that the task of such a committee would be to discuss the present constitution rather than write a new one and it would present only non-binding changes.

Moscow had said Syrian society would be fully represented at the meeting -- the first of its kind held in Russia -- but almost all those confirmed as attending were from either Assad's Baath Party, allied movements or the regime's "tolerated opposition".

The hosts did not provide a full list of delegates.

The Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), the country's main opposition group, said following two days of UN-led talks in Vienna last week it would not attend the Sochi congress.

The SNC accused Assad and his Russian backers of continuing to rely on military might and showing no willingness to enter into honest negotiations.

Authorities from Syria's Kurdish autonomous region said at the weekend they would also boycott the event because of the ongoing Turkish offensive on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels vying for Assad's ousting, is co-sponsoring the congress along with regime-backer Iran.

Members of the opposition and some Kurds would attend in an individual capacity, the Kremlin's special envoy on the Syria peace process Alexander Lavrentyev said earlier.
- Russian bombing campaign -

The UN's Syria peace negotiator Staffan de Mistura was at the event despite last-minute questions over whether he would attend.

The US State Department on Monday said it would not send observers to the Sochi conference, saying "our collective focus must remain on the UN-led political process".

Russia, which has spearheaded several rounds of talks from the start of last year in Kazakhstan's Astana, initially hoped to convene the congress in Sochi last November but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors.

Moscow's decision to launch a bombing campaign to support Assad in September 2015 -- Russia's first major military operation abroad since Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 -- is widely seen as a turning point in the multi-front conflict that helped shore up the Syrian president.

The Syrian war, in which more than 340,000 people have died and millions more been displaced, began in 2011 as the regime crushed anti-government protests.

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