TOKYO: France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday he was skeptical of any breakthrough at upcoming talks hosted by Russia and aimed at ending Syria’s bitter civil war.
Moscow, which has helped turn the war in favor of its ally Bashar Assad, has invited 1,600 people to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to begin hammering out a new constitution for post-war Syria, with talks set to start Tuesday.
The gathering comes after another round of UN-backed talks in Vienna ended in failure, with regime negotiators refusing to sit down with the rebel side unless they drop their demand for Assad to go.
The foreign minister said Vienna’s failure meant there was little hope for success in Russia, which the main Syrian opposition group has boycotted.
“I don’t think there will be progress in Sochi primarily because an essential component (the opposition) will not be there, precisely because of the regime’s refusal to negotiate in Vienna,” he told reporters in Tokyo during a visit.
“If there was a failure in Vienna it was because the regime was not in the negotiations,” he added.
In a statement on Monday, France’s Foreign Ministry confirmed it would not take part in the Sochi talks while Le Drian said alternatives to the UN-backed talks were “not good.”
Only a fraction of the 1,600 invitees are set to participate in the event, according to a list of participants seen by AFP which has about 350 people on it.
The Kremlin shrugged off the Syrian opposition’s decision to boycott the peace conference, saying the event would go ahead regardless and make a meaningful contribution to a political solution.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters: “The fact that some representatives of the processes currently taking place in Syria are not participating is unlikely to stop this congress from going ahead and is unlikely to seriously undermine the importance of the congress.”
Peskov said: “Everyone recognizes that immediate breakthroughs in the Syrian peace process are unlikely to be possible. The only thing that is possible is patient, incremental, detailed work that can move us forward. In this sense, the Congress will be a very important, meaningful step on this road.”
The opposition says the event is a waste of time, however.
George Sabra, a prominent figure in the Syrian political opposition, told Reuters by phone: “(Sochi) is a project to serve Russian policy. The Russians are trying, through this congress, to find a place for themselves in the Syrian political space after putting their heavy hand on Syrian land.”
Top Syrian Kurdish politician Hediye Yusuf, an architect of Kurdish-led autonomy plans for northern Syria, also predicted on social media that the event would yield little of import.
“Sochi will not bring results if the parties that are present on the ground are not there,” wrote Yusuf.
Separately, Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev told the TASS news agency that Moscow regretted the opposition leadership’s decision to stay away, but said he hoped “common sense” would prevail and they would change their minds.
He said some members of other opposition factions would attend and that “all strata” of Syrian society would be represented.
Lavrentiev told TASS he expected the conference to focus on selecting the members of a commission to draft a new Syrian constitution and for delegates to appeal for help to rebuild Syria.
Fresh elections and the country’s name are also expected to be discussed.