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Sochi Conference On Syria Opens Despite Opposition Boycott

Russian special envoys to Syria Aleksandr Lavrentiev gives an interview on the sidelines of the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue, Moscow, January 29, 2018

Delegates have gathered in the southern Russian city of Sochi for a two-day conference aimed at helping resolve the seven-year civil war in Syria, but the main groups opposing the Syrian government are boycotting the event.

Moscow, which is the main international ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has invited some 1,600 delegates -- including from the ruling Baath Party and organizations close to the government -- to the January 29-30 conference. The stated main goal of the event is the creation of a mechanism for writing a new Syrian constitution.

The Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), the main opposition group, and groups representing Syria's Kurdish minority have said they will not attend. The United States also said it would not send delegates.

"We note that the Syrian Negotiation Commission has announced it will not attend, and we respect that decision," Maria Olson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told Russia's Interfax news agency. "Our collective focus must remain on the UN-led political process in Geneva."

France's Foreign Ministry on January 29 also said it would not participate in the Sochi event and urged that all initiatives on Syria "must support the UN process and be in that framework."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a January 29 call that the boycott of the conference by the opposition was not a serious hindrance.

"The fact that some representatives of the processes currently taking place in Syria are not participating is unlikely to stop this congress from going ahead and is unlikely to seriously undermine the importance of the congress," Peskov said.

The UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was expected to attend the Sochi conference.

The event is being held under the auspices of the so-called Astana process, named after the Kazakh capital where meetings on Syrian cease-fires have been held. That process has been jointly sponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and the three countries held separate consultations in the run-up to the Sochi talks.

Western powers and the Syrian opposition have warned that the Astana process could be intended to replace the UN-led Geneva process, which has been stalled over the issue of whether Assad should step down.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, Interfax, and AP