Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gives a speech during a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi on Jan 30, 2018. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP)
MOSCOW — A Russia-hosted Syrian peace conference ended Tuesday with a plan to draft a new constitution as part of efforts to end the nearly seven-year civil war, but key opposition and rebel groups boycotted the gathering and it remained unclear if they would join the process.
No one expected that it would be possible to bring together representatives of all groups of Syrians without exclusion
Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister, Russia
The conference, held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, was also overshadowed by renewed fighting in northern Syria.
Opposition activists reported more airstrikes on the rebel-held Idlib province, where dozens have been killed in government air raids this week, and Turkish troops continued their offensive on the Afrin enclave, held by a US-allied Kurdish militia which also boycotted the Russian-sponsored talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov nevertheless hailed the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue as an important step toward peace in Syria and sought to play down the opposition boycott.
"No one expected that it would be possible to bring together representatives of all groups of Syrians without exclusion," he told reporters after the talks. "There is no big tragedy that two or three groups weren't able to attend."
Lavrov said the conference participants agreed to form a constitutional committee that will be based in Geneva. He said that the delegates proposed some of the committee's members and that groups absent from the Sochi talks will be invited to name representatives.
A statement approved by the delegates said a final agreement on criteria for selecting members, the constitutional committee's powers and its rules of procedure would be reached in Geneva under the UN's aegis.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria who has been leading Syrian peace talks in Geneva, said he would move quickly to set a schedule and a process for drafting the new constitution in Geneva "because Syria cannot wait."
"All Syrians seek a safe, calm and neutral environment for a constitutional drafting to unfold," he said in a statement. "All Syrians need a sustained cease-fire, full humanitarian access and the release (of) detainees, abductees and missing people."
De Mistura told reporters at UN headquarters in New York late Tuesday by audio link from Sochi that he believes talks on a new constitution could achieve results because countries with influence on the government and opposition appear determined to insist that both sides engage.
In this July 14, 2017 photo, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks at a news conference at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (XU JINQUAN / POOL PHOTO VIA AP, FILE)
Alexander Lavrentyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy for Syria, said 1,393 delegates attended the congress. He said the Sochi organizers were aiming to help revive the UN-backed talks in Geneva, not to sidetrack them.
The Sochi talks, by contrast, were not intended to address President Bashar Assad's fate, but to instead discuss constitutional reforms and future elections.
De Mistura said he is counting on Syrian government allies Russia and Iran and opposition supporter Turkey to use their influence to implement the agreement they supported in Sochi, along with the UN and other influential countries.
"The devil is in the detail," De Mistura repeated twice. "It's going to be uphill. We all know it. But we are actually going to establish a constitutional committee."
De Mistura said he will come up with the criteria for participants and choose a maximum of 45-50 members for the committee.
Russia, Iran and Turkey have each submitted 50 names already, but he said there will definitely be "very substantial participation" from the opposition that skipped Sochi along with government, other opposition and independent representatives.
He refused to give a timeline.
Sharp disagreements among those attending the Sochi conference were apparent as it opened, with some interrupting Lavrov's welcome address by chanting pro- and anti-Russian slogans. "You are killing our people," an opposition supporter chanted before he was approached by security.
The main opposition umbrella group, a Saudi-backed coalition known as the Higher Negotiations Committee, has been representing the opposition in Geneva. It did not attend the Sochi meeting.
De Mistura said the Sochi agreement supports "full implementation" of the UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the road map adopted by major powers in Geneva in 2012 calling for the creation of a transitional Syrian government with full executive powers that would pave the way for a new constitution and elections.
Asked why the focus was on a new constitution ahead of a transition, de Mistura retorted: "Are we going to ignore the fact that there is an opportunity for actually having a constitutional committee that may ... write a new constitution and that will lead to possible UN-led or UN-supervised elections?"
Separate talks held in Kazakhstan, another Russian-backed negotiating track, have focused on reaching local cease-fires.
The Syrian civil war is far from over, despite major gains by Assad's forces and the expulsion of the Islamic State group from virtually all the territory it once held.
Syrian opposition fighters drive through Syria in front of Turkish troops near the Syria border at Hassa, Hatay province, on Jan 22, 2018. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)
Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces are fighting their way into the Afrin enclave, held by a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People's Defense Units, or YPG. Turkey views the YPG as an ally of the Kurdish separatists who have waged a decades-long insurgency against it.
The YPG declined to attend the Sochi conference, saying it holds Russia responsible for the Turkish offensive.