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Russia's Syria conference to call for vote on country's future

Conference at Black Sea resort will call for Syria to remain a united country, but dozens of rebel groups have refused to join
Syrian war has killed more than 340,000 people (AFP)

A conference on Syria in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi will call for the Syrian people to decide their future by popular vote without external pressure, despite the Syrian opposition vowing not to attend.

The Moscow-brokered meeting aimed at ending Syria's war is due to take place next week. It was postponed last November due to differences between the would-be attendees, including over participation of the Kurds, a sticking point for Turkey.

Russian official news agency RIA cited a draft communique of the conference, 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 document as saying.

The Syrian opposition will not attend the peace conference, a spokesman said on Saturday, dismissing the meeting as an attempt by the Syrian government's close ally to "sideline" the current United Nations peace process.

"Russia has not succeeded in promoting its conference," the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) said on its Twitter account.

"The SNC has decided not to participate at Sochi after marathon negotiations with the UN and representatives of countries involved in Syria." 

Dozens of rebel groups had already refused to join the talks in Sochi next Monday and Tuesday, which are organised by the Syrian government's powerful ally Moscow.

The question of whether the main opposition would attend has overshadowed two days of separate UN-backed peace talks in Vienna.

Those talks stretched late into Friday night, with both government officials and the SNC meeting separately with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who did not strike an especially optimistic tone after the gruelling negotiations.  

As with eight previous rounds of failed UN-backed talks in Geneva, there was no sign that the warring sides had met face to face at discussions intended to lay the groundwork for a new post-war constitution.

De Mistura, speaking to reporters early on Saturday, admitted there had been a disheartening lack of progress in finding a solution for a war that has killed more than 340,000 people.

"I share the immense frustration of millions of Syrians inside and outside the country at the lack of a political settlement to date," he said.

But the United Nations said on Saturday that De Mistura will attend the Sochi talks.

"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.

Western powers and some Arab states believe the conference in Sochi is an attempt to create a separate peace process that would undermine the UN's efforts and lay the groundwork for a solution more suitable to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran. Turkey also backs the Russian peace initiative.

Ahead of an SNC news conference on Saturday morning, there was little detail about why the opposition had ultimately decided to boycott Sochi, though spokesman Yahya al-Aridi earlier described the talks in Vienna as "tough".

Meanwhile, fighting in Syria continues to rage. Turkey has launched a military offensive to drive Kurdish militias out of the Afrin area.