With government flags flying in Sochi, opposition delegation leaves in protest, citing 'unfulfilled promises'

AMMAN: A delegation of Syrian opposition representatives departed the Black Sea city of Sochi in protest on Tuesday, refusing to attend Russian-sponsored peace talks as deadly airstrikes continued to pound rebel-held Idlib province.

The delegation’s withdrawal was the latest blow to the Sochi talks, after the opposition’s primary negotiating body and a Kurdish political organization announced in recent days that they would not participate.

“We ended negotiations with the Russians today,” delegation member and Free Idlib Army commander Ahmed al-Saud told Syria Direct from the Sochi airport on Tuesday.

Al-Saud was one of what he said were 100 opposition delegates, including both political and military representatives, who arrived from Turkey late Monday under the leadership of Ahmad Tomah, who served as president of the Syrian Interim Government from 2013 until 2014.

Shortly after landing at the Sochi International Airport, the delegates refused to leave the building or participate in the talks. Hours later, they boarded another flight and returned to Turkey.

While al-Saud was still waiting in the Sochi airport, he told Syria Direct that the last-minute decision not to participate was due to “the aerial bombardment over Idlib, the presence of regime flags in the streets and airports and poor treatment by the Russians.”

The delegation initially travelled to Sochi “in order to advance the peace process and achieve a serious political transition,” Ahmad Tomah said in a video statement that was recorded at the airport, “but we were surprised that none of the promises made were fulfilled.”

“The barbaric bombing of civilians did not cease,” he said.

On Tuesday, a warplane airstrike hit the city of Ariha in central Idlib province, killing 15 people and injuring more than 20 others, Hameed Qadaini, a member of the province’s Civil Defense force, told Syria Direct.

Aftermath of an airstrike that hit Ariha on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Civil Defense Idlib.

The attack followed dozens of airstrikes that hit towns across the province on Monday just as the first delegates arrived in Sochi. Suspected Russian strikes on a vegetable market in Saraqeb, which lies just east of Ariha, killed at least 11 civilians on Monday, Syria Direct reported.

Idlib province is covered by one of four “de-escalation zones” established across rebel-held territory in Syria under a deal brokered by Russia and Iran last May. The zones do not, however, apply to Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, a hardline rebel coalition that controls most of Idlib.

But symbols, as much as bombings, appeared to play a role in the delegates’ refusal to leave the Sochi airport on Tuesday.

“We didn’t accept entering the airport lobby in Sochi under regime flags and banners,” Ahmad al-Hadawi, a tribal leader and opposition representative from Deir e-Zor told Syria Direct from the airport on Tuesday.

Photos of the Sochi airport shared on social media showed a number of banners prominently featuring the official Syrian flag and emblem used by the government. Opposition symbols were absent.

In Tomah’s video statement from the airport, the former interim government president called on Turkish delegates to represent opposition interests.

“The Turkish delegation remains present in Sochi, carrying our demands and seeking to achieve them,” he said.

Tomah’s conclusion came despite reports that Russian officials received “assurances” from their Turkish counterparts that any opposition refusal to participate would “be resolved,” as state-owned news agency Russia Today reported Tuesday morning. The report did not specify what assurances were provided.

Syrian government flags appear in welcome banners at the Sochi International Airport on Friday. Photo courtesy of Asaad Hanna.

The departure of Tomah’s opposition delegation did not prevent the Sochi talks—which aim to launch the drafting of a new Syrian constitution—from officially beginning on Tuesday in what was expected to be a one-day event.

About 100 other opposition representatives are in attendance, a former rebel faction commander told Syria Direct from inside the conference. The commander, who arrived from Geneva on Monday, requested anonymity due to fears of Russian repercussions while present at the talks.

The opposition members are among “about 1,500 persons representing spectrums of the Syrian society” who are participating, Syrian state media outlet SANA reported on Tuesday.

Representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey—the co-sponsors of the talks—were also expected to be present at the meeting, as was UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura. Other prominent parties to the conflict declined to join, including the United States.

The Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (KDPP), a prominent Syrian Kurdish political organization, announced its own refusal of an invitation to the talks on Sunday, following Turkey’s launch of an ongoing air and ground offensive against the Kurdish-controlled territory of Afrin earlier this month.

“Turkey has become an essential power in the Sochi talks, and this essential power is killing dozens of Kurdish children every day,” KDPP founder Abdel Hamid Darwish told Kurdish broadcast station Kurdistan 24.

A number of other prominent Kurdish parties, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that administers northern Syria’s majority-Kurdish regions, were not invited.  

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.