Vladimir Putin’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ Moment
Russia's highly-touted peace conference to end the war in Syria was an utter debacle.
SOCHI, Russia — The Russian government billed the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which it held last week in the Black Sea city of Sochi, as a watershed moment in the Syrian conflict. The summit was designed to convene the Syrian government, opposition, and Kurdish parties under one roof for the first time, and to provide the political justification for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of victory in Syria in December.
By these standards, the dialogue was an unabashed failure. Instead of confirming Russia’s status as the Middle East’s ascendant power, having “checkmated” the United States in Syria and with Putin ready to “rule the Middle East,” the Syrian National Dialogue Congress proved Moscow has no idea how to credibly wrap up its ongoing military adventure.
The congress was bedeviled in its early organizational stages by entirely avoidable controversies. The presence of only the regime’s flag on the congress’s logo was predictably interpreted as an affront by the High Negotiations Committee, the top anti-regime representative body. Russia’s choice of location was also deemed to be insensitive by the opposition: Sochi is the location of modern Europe’s first genocide, by the Russian empire against the Circassians, many of whose descendants live in modern Syria. Meanwhile, Russia’s extension of an invitation to Mihrac Ural, the so-called Butcher of Baniyas who took part in the massacre of hundreds of Sunni civilians in 2013, created a wholly unnecessary row with Turkey. Russia’s most disingenuous choice of all was to hold its peace conference while continuing heavy airstrikes on Syria’s Idlib province.
Russia’s goals for the summit were nonetheless lofty. It planned to oversee the creation of a unified national army and government, a move that would cement the Bashar al-Assad regime’s ascendancy, likely under various nominal “reconciliation agreements” of the sort that have taken place across Syria. At the very least, Moscow hoped to see the establishment of United Nations-supervised national elections that would legitimize the Syrian leader and allow for the Kremlin to credibly prepare to exit the conflict.
The Kurds were considered the key to realizing these high hopes. The summit was meant to mark the first official talks between Kurdish rebels and the Syrian government — an international coming-out party of sorts for the Kurds. Securing their involvement required Russia to engage in months of negotiations with Turkey, which deems the Syrian Kurdish forces a terrorist organization and a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While Russia repeatedly promised the Kurds that their 155 representatives would be able to attend, Turkey continuously insisted that no Kurdish delegates would be allowed.
On the eve of the conference, Ankara decided to ensure this reality through military means. On Jan. 20, it launched Operation Olive Branch, invading the Kurdish Democratic Union Party-run enclave of Afrin in Syria’s northwest. The offensive all but ensured the absence of Kurdish groups. While Moscow entertained hopes the Kurds would participate until the eleventh hour, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova saying on Jan. 27 that Kurdish representatives would participate, the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party ultimately decided on a full boycott of the talks. A handful of ethnic Kurds from Syria did appear in Sochi, but as one of them told Foreign Policy, they were present in a “strictly personal” observer capacity.
With hopes of Kurdish participation eliminated, all hope for a successful conference rested on the attendance of the Syrian opposition. In practice, this meant the High Negotiations Committee (other opposition groups in attendance were limited to the “loyal opposition,” toothless groups whose existence Damascus allows to give the illusion of competition with the ruling Baath Party). Internal discussions were reportedly intense, with some members of the committee favoring attending for a variety of reasons, including Turkish pressure. Ultimately, however, the group as a whole also decided to boycott the talks. Again, there was an intense last-minute effort by Russia to reverse this decision, but with the exception of a few individuals reportedly attending on their own, there was no High Negotiations Committee presence in Sochi.
With two of the three sides (regime, opposition, and Kurds) of Syria’s conflict thus entirely absent, the summit began with the near-certainty that little of consequence would be accomplished. Preliminary discussions on Jan. 29 did not occur, with representatives of the media being told quite literally to “amuse themselves” that day by Russian organizers. The official opening of the conference on Jan. 30 was delayed for three hours when an opposition delegation at the airport, disconcerted by the universal presence of regime symbols and absence of the opposition flag, departed back to Turkey.
This inauspicious opening drew into question what the congress could hope to accomplish with the Kurds and opposition absent. The drastic reduction in expectations was expressed succinctly by the organizers in terms of access and information made available to the hundreds of media personnel invited. We were shown almost nothing of the conference itself: Screens stationed throughout the press center, ostensibly to broadcast the sessions, turned off after the opening statements. No information was ever made available about the delegates. No Russian officials were present for comment or interviews.
To fill the long hours of the day, a number of presentations involving Russian academics and Syrian pro-regime figures were organized for the press. As the day progressed, the narrative presented by Russian analysts and academics began to shift to fall more in line with realistic outcomes for the conference. Vitaly Naumkin, a leading Russian expert on the Middle East, claimed that there were significant ongoing discussions about changing Syria’s official name (presumably dropping the “Arab” from “Syrian Arab Republic,” a point of contention with Syria’s Kurds) and its flag. But when asked how the present conference differed from the ongoing Geneva talks, he replied that Sochi was meant merely to “develop” the goals of the Geneva process, a deadlocked format that has failed to produce any meaningful results in its six years of existence. Insinuations began to appear from Russian analysts that the real achievements of Sochi had already been negotiated beforehand and would appear later, implying the conference itself was largely perfunctory.
Shorn of any access to delegates or information on proceedings, the media was left to languish in the press center, counting the time until their flights home. One experienced Western journalist was heard to remark this was “the worst” conference he had ever attended. The feeling of purgatory was finally broken around 10 p.m., when the dark broadcast screens flickered to life to announce the closing ceremonies. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura was at the podium, delivering a short speech about the creation of a constitutional reform committee and referencing the congress’s contribution to “the Geneva political process.” No “unified national army,” no elections, no additional reconciliation deals. Sochi’s Syrian National Dialogue Congress ended not with a bang but a whimper.
In the end the Sochi congress, far from a landmark Russian success, proved a debacle. It accomplished none of its goals, achieving only a constitutional committee whose framework was already in place. One analyst noted that the Sochi summit could deliver an appearance of success to Russia’s domestic constituency, although it’s unclear how many Russians care about a faraway conflict they’ve been told has been winding down for years now.
The wider outcome of the Kremlin’s much-vaunted congress, however, is much starker: it was a demonstration that Moscow is singularly ill-equipped to resolve Syria’s deep-seated conflicts and force all its players to the table. Moscow appeared ascendant last year — but 2017 was in many respects an anomaly in the Syrian conflict, concentrated as it was on the Islamic State. The limitations of Russia’s influence in Syria have now been laid bare in Sochi, with the tragic but expected result that the war will continue to grind on as it has for the past seven years.