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Russia Expands its Syrian Contacts to Hold ‘National Unity’ Meeting

Russia Expands its Syrian Contacts to Hold ‘National Unity’ Meeting

Friday, 26 June, 2020 - 07:00
Souvenir plates bearing the Syrian flag and the portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad are pictured in a shop in a bazaar in old Damascus. (AFP)

Russian officials have in recent days taken two more steps in dealing with Syria on the basis that it is composed of religious, ethnic, sectarian and social components. They have returned to the possibility of coming up with an amended version of the national dialogue conference that was held in Sochi in early 2018. They have now called for holding a national unity conference for all Syrian social components in order to draft a new “social contract”. Russian diplomats have also dealt out more criticism against the “extent of the corruption” in Syria, while simultaneously saying they were committed to “strengthening” the state.

The document drafted by Russia for the Sochi conference included an invitation to ethnic, religious and traditional institutions, ranging from Muslim Sunnis, Alawites, Shiites, Druze and Ismailis and Christian Orthodox, Syriacs, Catholics and Maronites. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians and tribal groups were also invited, along with regime and opposition political powers.

At the time, Damascus was not pleased with the “sectarian classification” proposed by Russia. Along with Iran, it expressed its reservations over the “Russian draft” of the Syrian constitution that had leaned towards taking away some of the privileges of the president and boosting the prime minister. The draft, which was rejected by the Syrian government, called for the lawmakers to appoint the prime minister and ministers according to proportional representation of all sectarian and national groups, with some positions reserved to sectarian and ethnic minorities. The parliament would also include a “regional grouping” that refers to the Kurdish administration.

Deep return

Russia has again come up with these proposals, this time with deeper details. Opposition Alawite members of the diaspora met with the Russian diplomatic mission at the United Nations in Geneva. The minutes of the meeting have been obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat. They revealed that the opposition delegation submitted its vision of the future of their country. They spoke of the establishment of an independent Syrian Arab republic which derives its power from various Syrian regions and areas, not from the idea of a centralized state.

The conflict, continued the delegation, led to the deepening of differences between the centralized state and various groups, whereby the ruling elite now controls all state resources. They accused the regime of fueling sectarian tensions and prioritizing Alawites above all else. They recounted how the army was established and the role Alawites played in it, as well as how the Baath party came to power in 1963.

The delegation also underlined its “belief that Russia is taking a biased position and is unconditionally allied to the regime. The regime’s inability to introduce reform or commit to the state of law threatens Russia’s role in Syria and jeopardizes its military position in the future… Russia has a major opportunity to play the role of mediator between the centralized power and preserving an equal distance between all groups and effective players in Syria.” Moreover, it said that the “Alawite society will not accept that it be labeled as the regime’s sect. The regime must be allowed to take part in national talks or dialogue as a representative of the Alawites. We refuse to link the fate of the Alawite sect to that of the regime.”

Strong state

For their part, the Russians spoke of Moscow’s role in Syria and how it constantly focused on empowering the strong state that can impose its sovereignty against western attempts to dictate their own agendas on the Syrians. The Russian delegation spoke of supporting diplomatic talks and the constitutional committee. It also said the Geneva path was a “platform for Syrians to discuss difficult issues outside the constitution.”

It also referred to recent European sanctions and the US Caesar Act, lamenting how western countries have imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria. The challenges in the crisis “demand a strong state that can preserve the national identity and unity during the toughest of times,” remarked the delegation. “This is why Russia is focusing on preserving the Syrian state and its institutions, while acknowledging that acceptance of this state is diminished due to lack of competency and wide corruption, as well as arbitrary sanctions imposed by western powers.”

The delegation stressed that Russia was “not involved in Syria to back individuals or operate as an occupying force, but rather it will always be prepared to empower the Syrians to join political discussions over their future.” Moscow, it continued, “is aware of the need to renew the social contract in Syria and this realization encouraged it to host the national dialogue conference in Sochi in 2018 even though the participants favored the regime and representation was far from ideal.” Russia, it stressed, is still attempting to empower Syrians to hold dialogue to discuss their future and differences.

The uneven representation undermined the success of the Sochi talks, but reputable opposition figures had underscored the significance of the meeting. Moreover, the participants realized that issues that may bring them together outnumber those that pull them apart, it added.

The opposition delegation said the Russian officials were keen on holding a national unity conference that would include all Syrian components and that would tackle the post-conflict phase and pave the way for reconciliation. A source informed on the Geneva meeting revealed that the “Russians were no longer so keen on the 2021 presidential elections, saying, however, that they are open to any nomination.”

The recent days have witnessed a series of virtual workshops by Syrian figures addressed to different Syrian groups, such as the Sunnis, Druze, Alawites and Kurds. The events were significant in that they took place in wake of the recent anti-regime protests in the predominantly Druze Sweida region in southern Syria. The Geneva meeting also coincided with a visit to Doha by Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who held talks with former chief of the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib.

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