A peace settlement to end the six-year Syrian civil war will require compromise by all sides, including the Assad government, Vladimir Putin has said as the presidents of Iran and Turkey arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi amid some of the most audacious Russian diplomatic activity in decades.
According to The Guardian, the summit between the three powers, all deeply involved in the conflict, is designed to pave the way for a settlement likely to leave Syria’s Russian- and Iranian-backed president, Bashar al-Assad, in power within a reformed Syrian constitution.
It follows the near-collapse of the Syrian opposition since Moscow’s armed intervention in 2015 and the military defeat of Islamic State in all of the major towns and cities that were under its control.
“The militants in Syria have sustained a decisive blow and now there is a realistic chance to end the multi-year civil war. The Syrian people will have to determine their own future and agree on the principles of their own statehood. It is obvious that the process of reform will not be easy and will require compromises and concessions from all participants, including of course the government of Syria,” Putin declared as he hosted Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.
Putin hosted Assad in Sochi on Monday and extracted a more emollient tone than normal. He insisted on Wednesday that Assad was committed to a peace process, constitutional reform and free elections.
The Russian leader also held a frantic round of telephone diplomacy with other world leaders including Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump.
Putin urged Iran and Turkey to start a discussion with him on the reconstruction of Syria. He claimed military de-escalation zones had reduced the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of refugees were returning home.
“Given the colossal scale of the destruction it would be possible to think together about the development of a comprehensive program for Syria,” he said.
The three-way summit endorsed his plan for a Syrian national dialogue congress to be held in Russia in December. The meeting is intended to help frame a constitution for an integrated Syria, including the terms of presidential elections in which Assad would be entitled to stand.
But in a sign of the difficulties ahead, Erdogan is insisting Syrian Kurds are excluded from the congress on the grounds that the Kurds are linked with Turkish Kurdish groups that Turkey says are terrorists. Syrian Kurds have been instrumental in the defeat of Isis as part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Erdogan was once one of the main backers of the splintered Syrian opposition but is now primarily focused on what Turkey sees as the Kurdish threat on its border.
Rouhani said the grounds for a political settlement had been laid but he argued it was “unacceptable” for foreign troops not invited into Syria by the government to remain in the country – a reference to U.S. troops in the north-east of the country.
Separately, Israel is demanding that the Iranian military presence inside Syria is reined back, especially near the occupied Golan Heights.
The UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura will be briefed on Putin’s plans in Moscow on Thursday. Simultaneously, Syrian opposition leaders are meeting in Saudi Arabia to choose a new negotiating team and platform for UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva that are due to restart on 28 November.
The reconstitution and expansion of the negotiating team has already led to mass resignations by prominent Syrian opposition figures including the former chair of the High Negotiations Committee, Riyad Hijab.
“After two years of working hard to confirm the demands of the Syrian revolution, I have to resign my duties, wishing the Supreme Commission more achievements, and to my country Syria, safety, stability and peace. My sincerest thanks to the people of Syria who stood in our support and the calls for justice during these tough times,” he said.
Those who have resigned complain that the international community, especially Russia, is trying to force them to accept that Assad can remain in office despite his brutal tactics in the civil war, including the UN-documented use of chemical weapons. They also claim Putin, despite his denials, is undermining the UN peace process in favour of a separate peace track with Russian-selected delegates to the national dialogue congress.
De Mistura told the opposition delegates they could instill a new dynamic into the Geneva talks if they could agree “a cohesive, representative, strategically wise, effective team that reflects the diversity of the Syrian society and is ready to negotiate without preconditions, in the same way as the government will be expected to do.” The flurry of diplomatic activity underlines the degree to which the U.S. and the EU have been sidelined from the process.