The latest round of Russia-sponsored talks to end the Syrian civil war got off to a bad start on Tuesday as some opposition groups boycotted the meeting entirely, others refused to get off their airplanes, and some of the delegates who actually made it to the meeting heckled Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his speech.
Russia billed the meeting, held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, as the “Syrian Congress of National Dialogue.” As it turned out, a number of the opposition delegates refused to attend — as did major Western powers, including the United States — because they felt the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was not interested in a real dialogue. Assad and his Russian patrons were seen as merely wishing to wrap up the Syrian civil war to cement the dictator’s position in power.
The main opposition group, known as the Syrian Negotiation Commission, attended U.N.-sponsored talks in Vienna last week but chose not to attend the Sochi event. They cited continuing Russian and Syrian military actions against remaining opposition enclaves as evidence Moscow and Damascus are not serious about reaching a political solution to the conflict.
Opposition leaders dismissed the Russian meeting as a distraction from U.N. talks, which they saw as much more likely to produce serious negotiations. U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura did attend the Sochi event, however.
Meanwhile, representatives of Kurdish groups in Syria boycotted the Russian event because they are currently under attack by Turkey.
The Russians claimed that most of the invited delegates came to Sochi, but many of them refused to leave their airplanes when they looked out their windows and saw Syrian government flags and symbols all over the place.
“We were surprised that none of the promises that were given had been kept, the ferocious bombing of civilians had not stopped nor the flags and banners of the regime [been] removed,” opposition leader Ahmed Tomah said in a videotaped message recorded at the airport, as reported by Reuters.
The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed this protest by sneering that “some problems have arisen with a group of the armed opposition” and claiming they surprised their hosts by making “additional demands” upon arrival.
Unfortunately for the Foreign Ministry, more trouble was yet to come. When Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a speech to kick off the conference, he was heckled by delegates who accused his government of killing Syrian civilians with airstrikes intended to support the Assad regime.
Lavrov had to repeatedly call for silence and seemed rattled by the interruption, especially when a particularly irate delegate was approached by Russian security and told to sit down:
The Sochi event was cut back to one day instead of two and might mark the end of Russia’s parallel track for Syrian peace talks, as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura’s attendance was premised on Russian promises that it would be a “one-off” event.