By Sun Degang, researcher at the Middle East Studies Institute, Shanghai International Studies University, China
The Syrian National Dialogue Congress concluded in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Feb. 2 under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The final report adopted at the meeting established 12 principles for resolving the Syrian issue politically. They include revising the constitution, holding democratic elections and setting forth the future of the country as determined by the Syrian people.
The parties at the meeting issued a joint statement and appeal, and agreed on establishment of a constitutional council in the spirit of Resolution 2254 of the United Nations (UN) Security Council. The UN Geneva peace talks on Syria will decide the terms of reference, rules of procedure and membership criteria of the council.
Analysts believe that the proposed congress can be regarded as an "upgraded version" of the Syrian peace talks in Astana. The congress effectively promoted the peace process in Geneva, and to a certain extent broke the deadlock on the Syria issue.
Delegation to the dialogue congress was more inclusive. Among the 1,500 delegates, there were representatives of the Bashar government and dozens of opposition parties inside and outside Syria, and others from the three sponsoring countries of Russia, Iran and Turkey, the UN and other international organizations, permanent members of the UN Security Council and Syria’s neighboring countries.
Although the U.S., Britain, France and the Syrian opposition refused to attend the congress and the Syrian government and opposition representatives had fierce clashes at the congress, the direct dialogue between all parties undoubtedly helped to enhance mutual trust and uncover common ground.
What is even more commendable is that all parties have agreed on a number of principle issues. After seven years of civil war, people in Syria are suffering and both the government and the opposition have paid a heavy price. They are fed up with the proxy war involving external forces and were willing to sit at the negotiating table.
All parties agreed that the Syrian people are the masters of the country and that all parties must respect the principles of sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity and oppose separatism. The differences must be resolved through peace and dialogue so as to promote national reconciliation.
Economic reconstruction must be resumed as soon as possible and there should be more humanitarian aid. It is also necessary to eliminate the remaining "Islamic State" militants. The people of Syria are the country’s owners and no external forces should be involved in Syria's internal affairs.
The congress at Sochi has left a number of outstanding issues. Russia stressed that although the Sochi dialogue was not intended to replace the Geneva peace talks, it was still boycotted by the Syrian opposition supported by the US., Britain and France.
The French foreign minister said more openly that a suitable place to discuss the Syrian situation is Geneva, not Sochi. Moreover, the outcome of the talks made no reference to President Bashar's role in the future political process.
In addition, there are still sharp contradictions between the Syrian government and the opposition as well as between the different opposition parties on issues such as the future political system in the country.
The Syrian Kurds, backed by the U.S., have increased their autonomy and advocated the change of the country’s name from the "Syrian Arab Republic" to the "Syrian Republic" in order to dilute the "Arab" attribute of the country. However, this proposition was boycotted by the Syrian government and other opposition parties.
Russia has strengthened its "agenda-setting" capability in the Syrian game with the West and has also brought a glimmer of hope to the Syrian issue through the Astana talks and the Sochi talks. However, the conflict among domestic parties in Syria is far from over.
At present, there are about 2,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in Syria and they plan to build a 30,000-strong "border security force" mainly composed of Kurds on the other side of the Euphrates in an effort to establish a new regime in opposition to the Russia-backed Bashar government.
Turkey's assault in Afrin continues, resulting in heavy casualties. Russia is trying to further consolidate its military presence in Tartus. Iran continues to exert influence through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Israel are also closely following developments in Syria.
There may in addition be a resurgence of the "Islamic State" that has been dismantled in the context of intensified geopolitical gambling. In light of the structural contradictions between external forces and different Syrian parties, the low intensity clashes in Syria might become normalized and it is still hard to see the dawn of peace in the short term.