Syria congress delayed as Russia talks with rebel groups
The opening of Russia's showpiece congress aimed at bringing Syria's seven-year war to an end was delayed by at least two hours on Tuesday, as Moscow struggled to bring together key players.
Regime-backer Moscow has 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.
But Syria's main opposition group and Kurdish authorities said they would boycott the event, while on Tuesday separate rebel representatives were at Sochi airport but refused to come to the congress before Russia met demands.
"There have been some problems with an armed opposition group arriving from Turkey, which said its participation depended on additional requirements," Artem Kozhin of the Russian foreign ministry said in comments reported by the TASS news agency.
The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke twice on the phone in a bid to resolve the problem, he said.
A rebel source told journalists that Russia had promised to change or remove the symbol of the congress, which features only the Syrian regime flag.
But the airport, the road to the conference centre and the congress hall itself were still decorated with banners and billboards bearing the logo when the rebels arrived on Monday night, leading to hours of ongoing negotiations.
The main aim of the talks is to establish a committee to create a post-war constitution for Syria with United Nations backing, according to a draft statement seen by journalists.
Moscow said Syrian society would be fully represented at the meeting – the first of its kind held in Russia – but almost all confirmed delegates are from either President Bashar al-Assad's ruling Baath Party, allied movements or the regime's "tolerated opposition".
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.
Clashes and air strikes again hit the border region of Afrin on Monday, with new civilian casualties reported.
Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels vying for Assad's overthrow, is co-sponsoring the congress along with regime-backer Iran.
However members of the opposition were at the event in an individual capacity, while the Kremlin's special envoy on the Syria peace process Alexander Lavrentyev said some Kurds would also attend individually.
The UN's Syria peace negotiator Staffan de Mistura was expected to participate, despite fears among Western powers that Russia is seeking to undermine a separate track of UN-backed Geneva talks with a view to carving out a settlement that strengthens its ally Assad.
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".
But Mohannad Dleikan, a representative of the Syrian opposition's so-called Moscow Group, which is attending Sochi but which has been accused by the mainstream opposition of toeing a more conciliatory line on Assad's future, said the aims of the talks were the same as those of the UN.
"If there is a consensus in Sochi, that will be a serious message to those in Geneva, whether it be the opposition or the regime," he told journalists from Beirut.
"We have obtained sufficient guarantees that this process will support Geneva, it will not act as an alternative."
Moscow, 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.
After two years of military support for the Syrian regime, President Vladimir Putin announced in December last year the partial withdrawal of forces from the country, saying their task had been largely completed.
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. (AFP)