Syria opposition missing from Russia's Sochi talks

Syria opposition missing from Russia's Sochi talks

The Syrian opposition figures were apparently offended by Syrian government flags in the airport [Image from social media]

Russia-hosted talks on the war in Syria are being held in Sochi without the representation of any major opposition group.

Turkey-backed rebel figures have refused to leave the Russian city’s airport in a last-minute protest.

An amateur video obtained by Al Jazeera on Tuesday showed a group of Syrian opposition delegates, who had arrived from Ankara late on Monday, waiting for a flight back to Turkey.

“Late last night, there was a kerfuffle down at the airport here – distressed Turkish officials running around trying to persuade a group of Turkish-backed opposition delegates to leave the airport,” said Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Sochi, referring to Monday evening.

“They apparently didn’t want to come out of the airport buildings because they had seen Syrian government flags plastered all over the branding for this Sochi conference, and that upset them.”

New constitution

The Sochi event, officially known as a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue, aims to foster an agreement between the government and the opposition to form a commission to write a new constitution for the war-torn country, Challands said.

But that seemed unlikely to happen without backing from major opposition figures.

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 Syrian President Bashar al-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.

“The belief among the opposition has always been that the Sochi conference, and probably this commission as well, is essentially representing Moscow and Damascus interests,” Challands said.

“They, along with Turkey, have been saying over the past few hours and days that perhaps they would agree with the proposals of the commission as long as it is limited and focused on maintaining direction towards Geneva [the UN-curated peace process].”

He added the opposition groups believed talks in Geneva were going to ultimately give the final peace settlement for Syria.

“And Turkey and the Syrian opposition groups do not want anything to deviate from that.”

The belief among the opposition has always been that the Sochi conference, and probably this commission as well, is essentially representing Moscow and Damascus interests

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands from Sochi

The Sochi conference was originally scheduled to be a two-day event, but it was shortened to a one-day forum on Tuesday.

Russia’s Tass news agency on Tuesday cited the forum’s organising committee as saying that 1,511 out of more than 1,600 invited delegates arrived in Sochi for the event from Syria, Geneva, Cairo, Moscow and Ankara.

The committee source reportedly said 107 delegates were representing the Syrian “domestic” opposition, including Qadri Jamil from “the Moscow platform”, Randa Kassis from “the Astana platform”, Syria’s Tomorrow Movement led by Ahmad Jarba, Haytham Manna from National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and representatives of the Civil Movement.

The committee source broke down the ethnicities of the participants, saying the majority were Arabs. Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Abkhazians, Turkmens and Druze were also represented, according to the source.

Inside Syria, clashes and air raids by the Turkish army continued against Syrian Kurdish fighters in Afrin on the eve of the Sochi congress on Monday, with new civilian casualties reported.

In neighbouring Idlib, at least 23 civilians were killed on Monday in air raids launched by Syrian government warplanes, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and Syrian Civil Defence.