BEIRUT/AMMAN/ANKARA: Syria’s opposition rejected a Russian-sponsored initiative to reach a political settlement to the civil war, as Turkey protested against moves to involve Kurdish groups, in an early setback to the peacemaking bid. The head of Syria’s main Kurdish political party, meanwhile, indicated his group favors attending the peace congress later this month, the first time the Kurds would participate in a major diplomatic push to end the war.
Having intervened decisively in the Syrian war in 2015 in support of President Bashar Assad, Russia now hopes to build on the collapse of Daesh to launch a political process to end the 6-year-old conflict.
Syria’s government has said it is ready to attend the Nov. 18 Sochi congress which is set to focus on a new constitution, saying the time is right thanks to Syrian army gains and the “terrorists’ obliteration.”
But officials in the anti-Assad opposition rejected the meeting Wednesday and insisted any talks be held under U.N. sponsorship in Geneva, the scene of a string of failed peace efforts.
The congress amounted to a meeting “between the regime and the regime,” said Mohammad Alloush, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee and a senior official with the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.
The HNC was surprised it had been mentioned in a list of invited groups and would “issue a statement with other parties setting out the general position rejecting this conference,” Alloush told Reuters.
The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition political opposition group said the congress was an attempt to circumvent “the international desire for political transition” in Syria.
Russian air power played a big part in the defeat of rebels in opposition-held eastern Aleppo and other areas last year.
“What kind of Syrian-Syrian dialogue will it be under the sponsorship of the [Russian] criminal?” said Eyad Shamsi, another HNC member and the head of a rebel faction.
A Russian negotiator said Tuesday that Syrian groups who boycott the congress risked being sidelined as the political process moves ahead.
Russia has invited 33 Syrian groups and political parties, including the Kurds, to what it calls a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue.”
While the head of the powerful Kurdish party the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Shahoz Hasan, did not firmly commit to attending the peace conference in Russia, he said Wednesday that a majority among the PYD and its allies now favored going: “We are discussing it and the majority view is to attend.”
He said the PYD would advocate for its decentralized model for Syria, which it says is the only way to end the conflict.
“We tabled the democratic federal solution in mid-March of 2016, and without it there are no solutions but only rendering the Syrian crisis permanent,” Hasan, PYD co-chair, said in written responses to questions from Reuters.
The PYD’s armed affiliate, the YPG, controls swaths of northern Syria where Kurdish-led local administrations have been set up. The PYD says it is not fighting to win independence, but to ensure any postwar constitution gives autonomy to regions.
While, Damascus and its allies have recovered swaths of central and eastern Syria from Daesh in recent months, a separate campaign by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has driven Daesh (ISIS) from other parts of the country.
The separate campaigns are now converging on Islamic State’s last strongholds in Deir al-Zor province at the Iraqi border.
Russia’s decision to invite Kurdish groups which dominate the SDF to Sochi triggered objections from Turkey Wednesday. Ankara, which views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as a national security threat, said it was unacceptable that the YPG militia had been invited.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkish and Russian officials had discussed the issue and he had held meetings of his own to “solve the problem on the spot.”
Turkey views the YPG and the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.