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Syrian Peace Talks in Russia: 1,500 Delegates, Mostly Pro-Assad
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Syrian Peace Talks in Russia: 1,500 Delegates, Mostly Pro-Assad


Most of Syria’s rebel groups refused to come to the Russian-sponsored peace conference in the resort town of Sochi on Tuesday. Those who did come refused to leave the airport.

Some delegates said there was no point in drafting proposals because the talks’ final statement was largely agreed upon before they began. Instead, some brought empty suitcases to fill with Russian goods to sell back home, and the schedule was almost evenly split between talks and meals.

It might have been a political comedy, except that back in Syria, at least 35 people were reported killed since Sunday, including a mother and three children, in the government’s Russian-backed aerial bombing campaign on rebel-held territory. The week before, eight people were killed, including a small child, when a rebel mortar round hit Damascus’s old city.

The Sochi talks were called by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, with the stated goal of breaking a longstanding impasse in negotiations to end the seven-year civil war. Those other talks, sponsored by the United Nations, have made no progress toward the negotiated political transition they envision.

Mr. Putin’s effort on Tuesday fared little better.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, was heckled by a critic of Russia’s bombing campaign, and critics called the conference a piece of theater that did not even pretend to foster discussion.

With 1,500 delegates and few opponents of the Syrian government among them, “it’s obvious they’re not intending to have serious discussions,” said Hisham Marwa, an adviser to an opposition negotiating committee that refused to attend. “The Russians are trying to control us, if not directly, they will try to find a way.”

Russia’s real goal, analysts said, was to replace the United States as the most engaged global power, while reshaping the diplomatic process to fit the military and political reality: President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents have failed to unseat him.

Mr. Assad’s government, with critical help from Russia and Iran, is reasserting control with a grinding military campaign. And it is resisting even the small political compromises that Russia says it is trying to wrest from Mr. Assad.

No one expected Sochi to produce a peace agreement. Instead, Sochi was supposed to broaden the range of Syrian voices in the talks, and it did draw in some civilian, nonviolent dissidents and officially tolerated opposition groups based in Damascus.

Perhaps the most consequential negotiation in Sochi was between the United Nations and Russia. The United Nations agreed that its Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, would attend, lending Sochi gravitas, if Russia would stop trying to make Sochi, not Geneva, the site of discussions for rewriting Syria’s Constitution.

On Tuesday, the issue was finessed, with the Sochi delegates proposing a list of committee members that can be approved only in Geneva. But if that agreement refocuses the Geneva talks on rewriting the Constitution instead of replacing the government, Russia will have scored another point for Mr. Assad.

The way Sochi played out also showed how far-off a real, productive debate between Syria’s combatants remains.

Delegates sent from Damascus were approved by the security services, participants said, and most were loyalists, from unions and other groups controlled by the ruling Baath Party. Even tolerated, Damascus-based dissidents — allowed to go as a counterbalance against the armed opposition — were given strict orders by Syrian officials on how to act at the talks.

Two days before the conference, hundreds of delegates — loyalist and Damascus-based opposition alike — filed into the Damascus Opera House, where a senior security official and Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, gave them instructions. One participant said the officials spoke like teachers to students, giving lessons on Syrian patriotism. And they did not entirely toe Russia’s line.

The Syrian officials, according to participants, gave the delegates red lines: no discussion of writing a new constitution, only modifying the one adopted in 2012. (The United Nations, Russia and others have all called for a new constitution.) No discussion of the country’s army or security services. (United Nations principles call for reforms to make them abide by human rights and rule of law.) And above all, no discussion of changing the president.

The pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al-Awsat reported one additional detail: They were also told not to shake hands with opposition figures arriving from abroad.

Footage from a plane headed from Damascus to Sochi — on the carrier Cham Wings, owned by Mr. Assad’s cousin — showed rows of delegates joining in to sing a patriotic song.

After long deliberations, a few Turkey-based opposition members decided to fly in. But upon arrival, they were confronted with banners emblazoned with the conference logo that featured only the current Syrian flag and not the older Syrian one they have adopted as a symbol of revolution.

They refused to exit the airport.

The delegation, including Lt. Col. Ahmad Saud, an army defector and rebel commander once backed by the United States, ended up stranded in the arrivals area.

In Syria, military tensions flared between Iran and Turkey, two of the Sochi talks’ sponsors. Iranian-backed militias were said to have shelled a Turkish convoy that was operating inside Syria with Russian permission.

Airstrikes by the Syrian government and Russia continued.

“Sochi’s white doves” was what Moaz al-Shami called the warplanes flying over his town, Saraqeb, where a market and hospital were hit Monday.

“Russia is telling us, accept Bashar,” he said, in a video of the destruction. “Accept Sochi or you’ll be destroyed.”

One of the delegates to the Sochi conference was Mihrac Ural, a Syrian militia leader accused of inciting pro-government forces who killed scores of civilians, including children, in a raid on the Syrian coastal towns of Baniyas and Bayda in 2013.

Photographed with him was Qadri Jamil, a prominent delegate and member of a tolerated opposition party who once served in Mr. Assad’s cabinet.

In perhaps the conference’s sole moment of spontaneous public debate, Mr. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was interrupted as he claimed in a speech that “Syria, with Russian air support, managed to destroy the terrorist forces.”

“Stop your aircraft from bombing the Syrian people!” a man shouted. Security guards appeared to speak to him sternly, as others cheered for Russia.

“In Russia,” Mr. Lavrov replied, “it’s polite to say please first.”



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