United Nations Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura will attend a Russia-sponsored "peace congress" in Sochi next week, despite the main Syrian opposition group's refusal to participate in the meeting.
"The Secretary-General is confident that the Congress in Sochi will be an important contribution to a revived intra-Syrian talks process under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement on January 27.
Western powers, some Arab states, and the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) believe the January 29-30 conference in Sochi is an attempt to create a separate peace process that would undermine the UN's efforts and lead to a solution more suitable to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran.
SNC spokesman Yahya al-Aridi on January 27 said that the Syrian government and its ally Russia had not provided it with the necessary commitments and that the Sochi talks were an attempt to undermine UN efforts to broker a peace deal.
Syrian opposition leader Naser al-Hariri said that the conference would not lead to a genuine peace track that could end the country’s seven-year war.
"The [Syrian] regime doesn't believe in a political solution and it will not believe in the future ... it only believes in the military option," Hariri said from Vienna on January 27.
Moscow's plan to hold a "congress of national dialogue" at the Black Sea resort city had been met with suspicion by many Western countries and the United Nations.
Russian news agency RIA on January 27 cited a draft communique of the congress, saying it would call for Syria to remain a united country and for a vote on the future of the country.
"The Syrian people independently determine the future of its country democratically by way of the vote," the agency quoted the communique as saying.
The United Nations is conducting its own round of peace talks aimed at finding a political solution to the nearly seven-year civil war in Syria.
Russia, which has received backing from Turkey and Iran for the congress, is accused of seeking to bypass the UN-backed process.
"The United Nations has to be put back in the middle of the game. There is no question of letting the Geneva process be hijacked, diverted or bypassed," the AFP news agency quoted a French diplomatic source as saying during UN-sponsored talks in Vienna on January 25-26.
Some Western nations fear a Russia-backed effort would lead to a result that would favor Assad's existing government.
Russia, along with Iran, has given Assad's government crucial support throughout the war, while Turkey and the United States support different rebel groups.
Moscow says the goal of the Sochi talks is to "efficiently" sustain the UN-sponsored talks with concrete "results."
It proposed the "congress" to bring together some 1,600 Syrian representatives from all sides to begin drawing up a new constitution for the post-war period.
Throughout nine rounds of negotiations in Switzerland, the SNC and Syrian government representatives have held separate talks with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, but the two delegations have not met face to face.
Before the SNC announcement, UN officials said they were still "evaluating the situation" before making a decision as to whether to attend the Sochi talks.
In addition to the UN sessions, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have been sponsoring parallel peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, dealing more with battlefield issues. They led to the establishment of four "de-escalation zones" in Syria last year.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa, and TASS