The “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” that just took place in Sochi was a learning experience for Russia, to put it mildly. Thought up by President Putin and personally introduced by the Russian leader to the world last October during a Q&A session at the prestigious Valdai Club, this initiative was intended to add a renewed impetus to UNSC Res. 2254’s stalemated mandate that Syria reform its constitution and hold new elections. The idea was for the Sochi “congress” to complement the Astana and Geneva processes and serve as a bridge between them, but the monumental challenge that this entails led to Russia’s chief negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev warning in advance that nobody should have any unexpectedly high hopes for this to happen right away.
Instead, the purpose was always to get the warring Syrians ides to talk to one another in an official multilateral capacity for the first time since the war began and ideally use that as the stepping stone to creating a UN-supervised constitutional committee, both objectives of where were actually accomplished. In that sense, the Sochi “congress” was more of a “success” than the “failure” that it’s being painted as by the Mainstream Media, but it would be wrong to pretend that everything went as it should have and couldn’t have been better. Russia learned three crucial lessons from its Syrian Summit in Sochi that will be instrumental if Moscow puts them to use during the next round and builds upon the admittedly piecemeal, albeit symbolic, progress that it’s already achieved:
- Don’t Roll Out The Red Carpet
Russian culture respects guests and treats them with the highest respect, especially if they’re coming from abroad and for very important purposes, and the country rolled out the red carpet for all the Syrians who arrived in Sochi for the “congress”. Sputnik reported that everyone “received Russia’s traditional greeting of bread and salt” and that they were also “met by volunteers wearing traditional Russian costumes and singing folk songs with balalaika music.” Not only that, but Sputnik also said that they all received “statuettes in a shape of (a) handshake…made of bronze and Ural malachite”, which were essentially ‘participation trophies’ designed to convey the importance that Russia attached to everyone’s attendance during this special event.
Unfortunately, Russia’s well-intended hospitality wasn’t positively received by some of the “rebels” who come from a much tougher culture that looks down upon such acts of kindness towards one’s foes and perceives them to be a sign of weakness that can be exploited. This attitude was apparent when a Turkish-based delegation refused to leave the airport unless their hosts removed flags and all other symbols representing the democratically elected Syrian government, while another “opposition” figure humiliatingly heckled Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for over a minute as he read out President Putin’s remarks to the attendees. It would have of course been worse had this individual thrown a shoe at Lavrov like what infamously happened to former President Bush in late 2008, but even without that egregious of an act, the “rebels’” disrespect to their Russian hosts was painfully apparent.
The lesson to be learned is that there are indeed civilizational differences between Russian and Arabic culture and even within each of them, and that the low-class “opposition” figures who turned up in Sochi don’t appreciate a proper high-class greeting. Rolling out the red carpet for these individuals was a mistake, though one that Russia didn’t realize until afterwards, since those people interpreted this warm welcome as a signal to walk all over their hosts. So as not to be misunderstood, those disrespectful actions are not emblematic of Arabic culture as a whole, the same as a rowdy tourist doesn’t represent the people of his or her homeland, but the point being made here is that Russia treated the “rebels” too well to the point where they no longer appreciated it but conspired to take advantage of it.
Next time Russia might be less inclined to welcome these people with bread, salt, folk dances, traditional music, and ‘participation trophies’ and instead treat the conference less like a ‘festival’ and more like the serious political gathering that it is, even if such an approach doesn’t come natural for them and is contrary to their hospitable culture.
- Maintain Mediators
The second lesson that Russia learned during this week in Sochi is that it must absolutely maintain mediators between the two Syrian sides. On the opening day of the “congress”, Lavrentiev told Russia’s TASS that “this will be the first time that [the Syrians] will have a chance to talk with each other (without mediators when they’re) on the sidelines of the Sochi event”, which sounded promising in principle but ultimately led to nothing more than endless squabbles and barely any tangible progress being made. The decision to set up a UN-supervised constitutional committee and the issuing of a 12-point statement that just reiterates the ideas agreed upon by all participants who are already taking part in the Astana and Geneva peace processes appear to have been ‘predetermined’ and not ‘natural’ outcomes of the “congress”.
Putting two sides that vehemently hate one another together in the same room and giving them a chance to ‘talk out their differences’ is a recipe for disaster no matter how admirable it may be in theory, and Russia found out the hard way that it’s impossible to get anything of substance accomplished under this format. While it obtained a symbolic victory in showing that it’s the only actor capable of pulling off this unprecedented feat, it nevertheless has nothing much to show for it apart from the applause that it earned from some figures. In practical terms, while each attendee knew what they were getting into by agreeing to this, it’s doubtful that any of them emerged happier as a result.
It’s very unlikely that this “free-for-all” format will be retained in the future because it hasn’t yielded anything of physical benefit. Russians are sometimes unrealistically optimistic about their plans because they have a tendency to get caught up in the moment and sincerely believe that the best outcome will eventually transpire, especially if this involves anything to do with guests and hospitality, but the Sochi summit showed that this isn’t always the case. Letting warring factions speak to one another without mediators on the sidelines of a major international gathering is bound to bring each party to the brink of an all-out brawl, which thankfully didn’t happen this time but is nevertheless a Damocles’ sword that Russia probably doesn’t want to have hanging over its head the next time around just in case someone violently loses their cool during a heated exchange.
- Consider Postponements
Russia’s proud of what the first-ever Syrian “congress” accomplished and it doesn’t regret holding it, but the event was still boycotted by some prominent “rebel” groups and also the Syrian PYD-YPG Kurdish “federalists”, without whom no “political solution” can be reached so long as Moscow doesn’t have the willingness to use military force in compelling them to participate. Russia recognizes this and that’s probably why Lavrov declared that “the Constitutional Committee will also include delegates from those groups who did not attend the Sochi gathering for whatever reason”, which makes one wonder why Moscow hosted the meeting in the first place if it wasn’t actually that important whether everyone showed up or not. In addition, the fact that there wasn’t any ‘punishment’ taken against those who boycotted the “congress” inclines them to do it over and over again so long as they’re led to believe that Russia will continue with the precedent of ‘rewarding’ them regardless.
Unless the “congress” was secretly intended to show off Russia’s functional capabilities in physically hosting such an event and never truly aspired to achieve anything of substantial significance beyond the symbolic constitutional committee and 12-point recycled statement, then it should have been postponed again just like it previously was in late November. The counterargument to this provocative suggestion is that Russia needed to catalyze the intra-Syrian reconciliation process as soon as possible, no matter how miniscule the progress it ultimately made may have been during this first attempt, and that it shouldn’t have its peacemaking efforts held hostage to obstructive forces abroad such as those who organized the “opposition” boycotts and engaged in the airport drama and heckling. These are definitely fair points, but they avoid the ‘uncomfortable’ question about why those said obstructionist forces were ‘rewarded’ with a future seat at the same Sochi table the next time this function is held.
The answer – however “taboo” it may be for some people to countenance – can probably be found in President Putin wanting to use the Sochi “congress” as an electioneering tool for helping him secure the highest percentage of votes possible during his last-ever election, which has a deep personal importance for him because he wants to receive his largest-ever mandate so that he can do everything that’s needed to put the finishing touches on his plans for Russia before he retires in six years’ time. The Russian public is very interested in the resolution of the War on Syria because their country has already sacrificed martyrs to its cause in the first-ever military intervention that Moscow made outside of the former Soviet space since the 1979-1989 Afghan War, so it might have been thought by the President’s election specialists that they’d react very positively at the polls if they see that their leader is bringing all sides together for peace.
Now that this domestic political objective has been accomplished in the most high-profile way possible a little less than two months before the vote, Russia can relax a bit and consider postponing its follow-up “congress” however many times it needs in order to ensure that it yields more impressive results next time.
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