The conference was chaired by Moscow and had Tehran and Ankara as the other two guarantors of the Syrian peace process. The Syrian National Dialogue Congress ended with a final statement that agreed on the establishment of a constitutional committee that will include 150 candidates from the opposition and the regime, who will discuss amendments or additions to the existing Syrian constitution. Turkey, which is content with the formation of the committee, stated that it would follow the process closely and had already submitted a list of 50 candidates in consultation with the opposition.
The Kremlin invited 1,600 Syrians to Sochi. However, a delegation of opposition members who traveled from Ankara refused to participate after seeing posters and flags bearing images of the Syrian regime all over the airport and congress center. This group passed their voting rights to Turkey, which was represented by Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Sedat Onal, a very experienced diplomat who served in Arab capitals for many years.
The absence of this group was not the only crisis in the Sochi talks. The attendance of Mihrac Ural, who is one of Turkey’s most sought-after terrorists as he is blamed for bloody massacres in the Syrian coastal towns of Baniyas and Bayda and also in the Turkish city of Reyhanli, caused controversy. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately demanded an explanation from the Russians and asked Moscow to extradite him. “His name was not included on the list of invited delegates given to Turkey by Russia. We reacted and now Russia is working on the issue,” said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Also, during a phone conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Ankara voiced its discomfort over the matter.
It would be naive to expect a meeting on Syria to take place without disagreements or crises, but despite some challenges the congress provided positive outcomes for Ankara and Moscow.
Needless to say, it would be naive to expect a meeting on Syria to take place without disagreements or crises, and nobody argued that talks at Sochi would be easy. However, several questions come to mind. Why didn’t Russia inform Turkey of the attendance of Ural, who has an Interpol red notice to his name? How were the regime posters put up without organizers being aware of how they could cause a potential crisis? Were the presence of the posters and logos of the regime a clear message to the participants and guarantor countries, especially Turkey?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, but a meeting held between Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad prior to the Sochi talks seems to tell a lot. From the very beginning of the Astana process, Moscow’s main aim was to consolidate the position of the Syrian regime and it succeeded in this with the Sochi talks. Secondly, Moscow wanted to create a broader platform for Syrian talks, where it will have the upper hand rather than the US. That is why the Astana process is now on the agenda more than the Geneva talks, in which the US and the Western-backed opposition members have the greater influence. Thirdly, already being on the ground in Syria, and now on the table, Moscow asserted itself as the main playmaker in Syria. Russia wanted to show all the actors who have a stake in Syria that: “All roads lead to Moscow.” Lastly, Putin, who is Russia’s sole foreign policy maker, achieved his aim of being a powerful global player once again.
Despite the problems that arose at the meeting, the Sochi talks also provided Ankara, along with Russia, a positive outcome. Representing a segment of Syrian opposition at the Sochi table strengthens Turkey’s hand from one side; but also increased its responsibility during the process. Secondly, by being part of the process with Moscow and Tehran, Ankara strengthened its position in the Afrin operation, with which it aims to curb the terrorist presence along its borders. Thirdly, Turkey being in the Astana process sends a message to Western countries, namely the US, that Ankara is not without alternatives in its engagement in Syria.
We do still have a fragmented Syria picture in front of us and there are still disagreements among the members of the peace platform guaranteed by Turkey, Iran and Russia. However, the Sochi talks created a win-win situation for both Moscow and Ankara at a time when the future of the country is being shaped.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.