BFF-06 Syria opposition to boycott Russian peace talks

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BFF-06

SYRIA-CONFLICT-UN-DIPLOMACY

Syria opposition to boycott Russian peace talks

VIENNA, Jan 27, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Syria’s main opposition group on Friday
said it would boycott Russian peace talks next week in a major blow to
Moscow’s diplomatic efforts towards resolving the brutal seven-year conflict.

“Russia has not succeeded in promoting its conference,” the opposition
Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) said on its Twitter account.

“The SNC has decided not to participate at Sochi after marathon
negotiations with the UN and representatives of countries involved in Syria.”

Dozens of rebel groups had already refused to join the talks in the Black
Sea resort next Monday and Tuesday organised by the Syrian regime’s powerful
ally Moscow, and the question of whether the main opposition would attend has
overshadowed two days of separate UN-backed peace talks in Vienna.

Those talks stretched late into Friday night, with both regime officials
and the SNC meeting separately with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura — who
did not strike an especially optimistic tone after the gruelling
negotiations.

As with eight previous rounds of failed UN-backed talks in Geneva, there
was no sign that the warring sides had met face to face at discussions
intended to lay the groundwork for a new post-war constitution.

De Mistura, speaking to reporters early Saturday, admitted there had been
a disheartening lack of progress up until now in finding a solution for a war
that has killed more than 340,000 people.

“I share the immense frustration of millions of Syrians inside and outside
the country at the lack of a political settlement to date,” he said.

– Russian ambitions –

With some 1,600 people invited to Sochi, the UN itself has yet to decide
whether it will attend, de Mistura said, adding that this decision is being
left to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

De Mistura stressed the legitimacy of the UN-led talks over Russia’s
parallel peace push, however, saying firmly that a political transition for
Syria “is to be reached in the UN-led Geneva process”.

“I hope that the forthcoming Syrian national dialogue congress in Sochi
will contribute to a revived and credible intra-Syrian process under the UN
in Geneva,” he added.

Ahead of an SNC press conference on Saturday morning there was little
detail about why the opposition had ultimately decided to boycott Sochi,
though spokesman Yahya al-Aridi earlier described the talks in Vienna as
“tough”.

Western powers have viewed the Russian peace initiative — which is also
backed by Turkey and Iran — with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking
to undermine the UN-backed talks with an ultimate view to carving out a
settlement that strengthens its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

– ‘Black comedy’ –

Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House think-tank, said
Russia’s long-term strategic interests were at play in Sochi.

“They want to present themselves as peace brokers, not only in Syria but
in the Middle East in general, a role traditionally carried out by the
Americans,” Haid told AFP.

“For the Russians to take this role, they have to do what the Americans
were not able to do” — find a solution in Syria, he said.

The Vienna talks were also marked by anger from the regime over a leaked
set of political proposals from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan,
Britain and France that would involve strengthening the role of Syria’s prime
minister — at the expense of Assad’s authority.

Top government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters it was
“tantamount to a black comedy” that these countries were seeking to shape
Syria’s political future, as Arabic and English versions of the document
circulated online.

“All of them have participated in the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he
said of the five nations, blasting the US as the country “that created ISIS”
and adding that Saudi Arabia was anything but a “beacon of freedom in the
east”.

BSS/AFP/MRI/0832 hrs