Syria peace talks in Sochi make progress — without U.S.

Without the participation of the U.S., other Western imperialist forces or the Gulf monarchies — all of whom have armed and funded forces carrying out the war in Syria and are responsible for the suffering there — the parties directly involved in the war in Syria held peace talks at the end of July. The talks indicate the success of the Damascus government in winning back control of most of the country. Leukefeld has been covering events in Syria for at least the past decade for the German daily newspaper Junge Welt, which published this article on Aug. 2. The translation is by Workers World Managing Editor John Catalinotto.

As July ended, the tenth Syria talks in Astana format [peace talks that started in Astana, Kazakhstan, in January 2017] took place in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi. Those parties involved in the war in Syria discussed how a peace process could be set in motion. The meeting took place under the patronage of the guarantee powers: Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The agenda was set by Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, and by the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. Iran was represented by Hossein Dzhaberi Ansari, advisor to the Iranian Foreign Minister. Turkey sent its Astana representative, diplomat Sedat Onal. The Syrian delegation was led by the country’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Al-Jafari.

Some opposition delegations and U.N. experts also attended. Neither the U.S. government nor the opposition National Coalition, supported by the West [U.S. and West European NATO powers] and the Gulf States, took part in the meeting.

For the guarantor powers, military, practical and confidence-building measures were in the foreground. These included the situation in the Syrian province of Idlib, the return and support of internally displaced persons and refugees, the reconstruction of the civilian infrastructure, and the exchange of prisoners and the deceased. The political process will have to be shaped by the Syrians themselves.

De Mistura, on the other hand, emphasized the necessity of advancing constitutional reform. A commission is to meet in Geneva under his patronage. The Syrian government has already submitted a list with the names of 50 of its delegates. According to the West, another 100 people will each be nominated — half by the opposition [to the Damascus government] within Syria and half from abroad.

‘Transitional solution’ to end the fighting

The Astana talks — in which the Syrian government and the “more moderate” armed opposition groups are negotiating — have contributed significantly to calming the war in Syria since the beginning of 2017. De-escalation areas have been created, thousands of Syrian opposition fighters have laid down their weapons, and the Syrian Army has brought large parts of the country back under its control. Those who did not want to surrender their weapons were transported with relatives to Idlib or farther north in the country to areas controlled by Turkey.

This is, however, to be a “transitional solution.” Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has made it clear that the whole country is to be brought back under control of the Syrian state. This expressly includes talks between Damascus and opposition groups.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department stated that the U.S. would not attend the meeting in Sochi “as an observer or in any other official capacity.” Instead, Washington “continues to focus on negotiations under the auspices of the UN in Geneva,” the spokesperson said.

Maria Sakharova, spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, called the U.S. absence “regrettable,” especially as Washington constantly assures the other parties that it wants to support the political process in Syria. That is exactly what the meeting in Sochi was about.

Moscow had repeatedly assured that this was not an “alternative to Geneva.” The U.S. government is trying to downplay the importance of the Astana format to make the mediation results achieved there seem unimportant and to prevent their implementation. This rejection is due to the U.S. failure to “bring Syria under its control,” Sakharova said. According to de Mistura, the U.N. Special Mediator for Syria who personally participated in the Sochi talks, this is a bad attitude.

A final declaration of Sochi was signed by the guarantors Russia, Iran and Turkey on July 31. It emphasizes a development in Syria in accordance with international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Battle against ‘terrorist groups’ in foreground

For the guarantor powers, the battle against the “Islamic state,” the Nusra Front and other groups listed by the U.N. Security Council as “terrorist groups” remains in the foreground. Separation of any territory and separatist aspirations are unanimously rejected, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country is reaffirmed, as is the “national security of neighboring countries.”

The emphasis in the discussions is on support for a political process, which is to be led and determined by the Syrians. The Constitutional Commission should start its work in Geneva “as soon as possible.” The guarantors welcomed the “useful” talks with U.N. Special Representative for Syria, de Mistura. A new round of talks in Geneva is scheduled for this September.

The “international community,” in particular the U.N. organizations, was called upon to give more support to Syria. More efforts should be made to deliver humanitarian aid, mine clearance and the restoration of a basic civilian infrastructure. “Social and economic institutions” and the “preservation of the historical heritage” are expressly mentioned in the declaration.

All Syrians are to be helped to restore their normal, peaceful lives. To this end, more efforts will have to be made and discussions started with the mediation of the U.N. refugee assistance organization — UNHCR — and other “specialized international organizations.” The goal is to create the “necessary conditions” for a “safe and voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their home areas in Syria.”

The guarantor powers undertook to work together to restore trust between the enemy sides. A working group is supervising the release of prisoners and hostages and the exchange and identification of those deceased. Experts from the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross are to support that work. At a meeting of this working group on July 30, a “pilot project” was agreed upon. The next meeting following the Astana format is scheduled for November 2018.

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