Putin: “The congress will look at the key questions on Syria’s national agenda.”
President Vladimir Putin, meeting Turkish and Iranian counterparts, has pressed Russia’s tactic of a “people’s congress” to resolve the 80-month Syrian conflict.
Hosting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hassan Rouhani in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin said the meeting will bring together Assad regime and opposition figures:
The congress will look at the key questions on Syria’s national agenda. First of all, that is the drawing-up of a framework for the future structure of the state, the adoption of a new constitution, and, on the basis of that, the holding of elections under United Nations supervision.
Russia is hoping the congress will take place in Sochi ahead of the next round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva on November 28 — but no details of the date or invitations were released.
Leaders of the main Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition and the High Negotiations Committee, refused to attend talks in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday seeking to “unify” groups. The head of the HNC, Riad Hijab, and other members resigned, saying that the meeting was accepting Bashar al-Assad’s stay in power. They also pointed to the featuring of the “Moscow group”, a smaller faction favored by Russia and — in the eyes of the SNC and HNC — with ties to the regime, in the gathering.
The three leaders in Sochi also did not mention if Kurdish groups, notably the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), would be invited to the Congress. Russia initially said that it was seeking participation of the Kurds, who hold much of northern and eastern Syria, but backed away amid Turkish objections.
Ankara considers the PYD to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
In their joint statement, Putin, Erdoğan, and Rouhani said all sides should release prisoners and hostages, hand over bodies, and create the conditions for a lasting truce.
Without addressing the ongoing sieges and attacks by the Assad regime on opposition territory, they urged the international community to provide humanitarian aid, clear Syrian territory of mines, and restore damaging infrastructure.
The three leaders did not refer to their tensions over “de-escalation zones” promoted by Russia throughout Syria. While Iran has formally joined declarations of the zones, they have also publicly endorsed the reclamation of territory from both Kurds and the opposition by the Assad regime, including areas east of the Euphrates River — recently gained by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from the Islamic State — and opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
Putin did indicate that Russia will not give unreserved backing to the Assad regime, saying, “Compromises and concessions will be needed on all sides…including (from) the Syrian government.”
Erdoğan echoed, “It is critical for all parties to contribute to a permanent and acceptable political solution for the people of Syria.”
But Rouhani preferred to aim at foes, including the US — and possibly Turkey, whose troops entered northern Syria alongside rebels in August 2016 — with the charge:
There is no excuse for the presence of foreign troops in Syria without the approval of its legitimate government.
The Syrian nation will not allow any interference of foreigners in their state affairs and will confront any move that harms Syria’s integrity, independence, and unity.
White Helmets Turn Down Invitation to Riyadh Meeting
The White Helmets civil defense organization has turned down an invitiation to attend the unity talks in Saudi Arabia.
The group said in a statement:
We can assure all sponsors of peace talks that the Syrian people no longer see the use in new initiatives, bodies, platforms, and conferences claiming to be representative, particularly in the absence of any serious commitment to implement international resolutions on the ongoing violations. This applies particularly to the Assad regime which feels immune from accountability.
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) November 22, 2017
UN: People in Besieged East Ghouta Eating Trash and Animal Feces, Fainting from Hunger
Residents of the besieged East Ghouta area near Damascus are eating trash, fainting from hunger, and forcing their children to eat on alternate days, the UN World Food Programme said in a report on Wednesday.
An estimated 390,000 people are surrounded in the opposition area by a four-year siege which has been tightened since March, despite the Russian proclamation of a de-escalation zone. Pro-Assad forces have closed tunnels and shut the last checkpoint allowing transfer of food and supplies.
The UN has said that many people, including 1,500 children, face imminent malnutrition. Doctors say one person per day is dying from siege-related conditions.
The World Food Program summarizes it surveys of people in the area:
[Survival] includes consuming expired food, animal fodder, and refuse; spending days without eating; [and] begging and engaging in high risk activities to get food. Moreover, many hunger-induced fainting episodes have been reported among school children and teachers….
Some households are even resorting to rotation strategies whereby the children who ate yesterday would not eat today and vice-versa.
At least four people have died from hunger, including a child in Douma who took his own life, said the WFP. Bread is 85 times more expensive than in Damascus, only miles away.
“The situation is anticipated to deteriorate further in the coming weeks when food stock is expected to be totally depleted and household coping strategies will be highly eroded as a result,” the report warned.