By Scott Lucas – November 1, 2017 – The main Syrian opposition has rejected the Russia’s “people’s congress” proposal. Mohammad Alloush, a member of the High Negotiations Committee, said the congress will be a meeting of “the regime with the regime”. He said the HNC will “issue a statement with other parties setting out the general position rejecting this conference”.

The Syrian National Coalition also confirmed its rejection of the congress as an attempt to circumvent “the international desire for a political transition” and the UN-led political talks in Geneva.

“The Coalition will not participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without UN sponsorship,” SNC spokesman Ahmad Ramadan said.Russia has played its next move in the 79-month Syrian conflict, calling for a “people’s congress” for “compromise solutions”.

The Russian delegation set out the initiative on Tuesday in the 7th round of the talks in Astana in Kazakhstan, which also include Turkey and Iran and delegations from the Assad regime and opposition. Invitations have been sent 33 Syrian groups and political parties to a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” on November 18 in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month that the congress will include “all ethnic and religious groups, and the government, and the opposition”.

Moscow has tried for years to work around or even set aside anti-Assad groups, portraying the main opposition as fragmented and unable to reach an accord with the regime. It has cultivated alternative factions, labelled as the “Moscow” and “Cairo” groups, of politicians and activists whom it favors. Russia has also maneuvered to bring Syrian Kurdish groups into negotiations, while navigating the expansion of Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria. Throughout the effort, it has sidelined the US, who has been absent from the Astana process since it began in January.

Yesterday’s move brought an immediate reward when a “senior Kurdish official” said, “We are studying the issue and our stance has been positive so far.”

The main Syrian opposition favors the contination of talks under UN supervision. Spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said the proposed congress as “really worrying”, noting a lack of clarity over the aims and who would be involved. He added the fear that the gathering will be used as “fabricated” evidence of “reconciliation” — the Assad regime’s term for the surrender of opposition groups and rebels — to mislead both Syrians and foreign countries.Russia did not set out the aims of political transition, including the future of Bashar al-Assad, with the congress. Nor did it explain how the step would address the issues of the regime’s ongoing sieges and imprisonment of political detainees.Assad, who has said since the start of the Astana and Geneva processes that he will accept no outcome in which he departs, and his delegation have stepped up sieges despite the discussions and have made no move to release detainees from conditions in which thousands have been abused and killed since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011.

A Cautious Regime Response

Syrian State media noted Russia’s proposal, including a statement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the Assad regime’s closing statement in Astana did not address the initiative.

Instead the head of the delegation, UN Ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari, carefully said:

Syria has taken the initiative to hold a national dialogue conference since the very beginning of the crisis in 2011 and has repeatedly reiterated its support to hold dialogue. Moreover despite feeling that the submitted initiatives have not led to any concrete results, the Syrian state has spared no effort to push forward dialogue mechanisms.Ja’afari’s focus was on the “de-escalation zones” across Syria which have been promoted by Russia, trying to push back Moscow’s co-sponsor Turkey by accusing it of aggression and co-operation with “terrorists”:

But, what has happened since Astana 6th meeting is that the Turkish forces infiltrated with their armored vehicles, in cooperation and coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, into the Syrian territory in contrary to its obligations under the agreement of de-escalation zones among the guarantor states.

Earlier this month, Turkey sent personnel into Idlib Province in northwest Syria, both to bolster the de-escalation zone in the opposition-held area and to establish a frontline with the Kurdish canton of Afrin. Ja’afari said the regime “considers the presence of any military forces on its territory without the approval of the Syrian government as an occupation and aggression”. He continued with denuncation of the US military presence, supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in north and northeast Syria.