The twice-adjourned Congress of Syrian National Dialogue was held in Sochi on Jan. 20. The event was very unusual both for its number of participants – more than 1,300 people – and the goals set by the organizers of the meeting.
The first thing that hits the eye when it comes to Sochi is the rush with which the Russian leadership organized the event. Russian President Vladimir Putin first stated the need to hold the congress in October 2017, in a speech to the participants in the Valdai Forum, after which Moscow quickly set the ideas of the president in motion. The subsequent statement by Putin about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria did not leave any doubt that the Kremlin was in a hurry to hold a congress based on domestic political considerations.
In fact, all the actions that Russia takes with regard to the Syrian track up until mid-March 2018, when presidential elections are to be held, will have been determined largely by domestic political expediency. In this regard, Sochi is meant to demonstrate to a Russian audience the coming victory of Moscow in the international arena – this time diplomatic rather than military – as well as the transition to a peaceful settlement in Syria after the withdrawal of Russian troops.
The fact that Moscow managed to hold the congress can already be considered an achievement. The Russian organizers of the Congress believe that they managed to gather representatives of a significant part of the Syrian political spectrum in Sochi, and from this perspective the meeting has no peers. Of course, almost an absolute majority of the participants supported the existing Syrian regime. But for a Russian citizen who is inexperienced in Syrian realities and who finds it difficult to differentiate between Syrian factions, the congress will be perceived as a triumph of Russian diplomacy.
However, despite all Moscow’s efforts, the congress can also be seen as a failure rather than a success. Its main problem is a lack of legitimacy. The representatives of the real Syrian opposition refused to come to Sochi, significantly reducing its effectiveness and demonstrating the limitations of Russian capabilities. At a meeting in Vienna on Jan. 26, the Syrian High Negotiation Committee, which represents the Syrian opposition, did not see a great surge of support for the congress. Of the 34 members, only 10 favored the Russian initiative (four from the Moscow platform, three from the Cairo and three independents), which was only enough to block the proposal to boycott the Sochi meeting. This decision by the SNC is quite understandable: with such a large number of participants, the opposition would inevitably be in the minority, while their presence would legitimize all the decisions made at the congress.
The organizers of the Sochi Congress hoped to neutralize the lack of opposition through the participation of de Mistura. However, at the last moment the UN special envoy refused to speak there. In fact, the presence of de Mistura in Sochi was limited only to his attendance at the hall during the speech of Sergey Lavrov, as well as by the briefing after the closing of the congress. The UN special envoy took this position because the Russian party could not explain to de Mistura what forces the delegates arriving at the Congress represented, by which principle they were selected and what purpose its organizers pursue.
This is not surprising. The logic of the sequence of events in Sochi showed that the Russian leadership needed the congress not to present a platform for discussions to the Syrians, but to approve decisions prepared in advance by Moscow. In other words, the congress was nothing more than a formal procedure for the legitimization of the Russian vision of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Moreover, in the absence of the opposition, “legitimacy” was achieved through the large number of participants at the Congress.
To the surprise of Moscow, the representatives of the Syrian regime and its supporters were not ready for such a scenario in Sochi. Having put a lot of effort into coordinating the Final Statement of the Congress Participants with the UN, as well as Turkey and Iran, Russia did not bother to agree it with the regime itself. The situation thus suddenly became complicated at a time when delegates who arrived in Sochi refused to vote for the final statement on the results of the Congress.
At the same time, the Syrian party refused to vote for the key point of the Final Statement, which said that constitutional reforms were to be carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. The Syrian side insisted that the adoption of the constitution was Syria’s internal affair and should be implemented without the participation of de Mistura. Even the statement of the Special Representative of the Russian President to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, who said that the refusal of this formulation would lead to the loss of any hope for the legitimacy of the Sochi Congress, did not affect the decision of the delegates, who voted against the final document.
As a result, each of the parties remained of the same opinion. Moscow, according to the results of the congress, handed Staffan de Mistura the Final Statement in its original form while Damascus published a fundamentally different version of the statement on the official website of the SANA agency, without mentioning the UN.
A no less important result of Sochi was the decision of its participants regarding the need to establish a commission for the discussion of the constitution. However, the fundamental issue here lies in the different understanding of the constitutional development of Syria. While Tehran, Moscow and Damascus insist on maintaining the current constitution with the necessity to amend it, the other participants in the Syrian conflict are of the opinion that a new framework law should be adopted.
And this question is far from being idle, as it may seem at first glance. The problem of the constitutional development of Syria is closely related to transitional justice. The transition period in Syria can begin only if the foundations of the former regime are fully revised. In this regard, the preservation of any legal basis on which the current regime is based only legitimizes it. Not to mention that if the amendments to the current constitution are adopted, even by the commission under the auspices of the United Nations, the last word remains with the regime, which retains in its hands the instruments for monitoring the mechanisms for their implementation.
Thus, the preservation of the current constitution is a move in favor of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. The Syrian regime gets its desired legitimacy and only agrees to “cosmetic” changes, retaining the leading positions in the country. Moscow, on the other hand, receives the formalization of the political transition in Syria it wants, and gains additional arguments in its dialogue with the West linking its participation in the economic reconstruction of Syria with advancement along the political track.
It is likely that the main result of the Congress will not be Moscow’s inability to influence the opposition, but its limited influence on its loyal representatives of Syrian groups and political parties. In Sochi, the most pro-Russian Syrians were gathered together, but not even Alexander Lavrentiev was able to win over them. All this has once again revealed Moscow’s difficulties in achieving results in a non-military way.
 According to the rules of the Syrian High Negotiation Committee, no less than 26 of its members are required to obtain support for any decision.