The four-way summit on Syria that was held in Istanbul on Saturday was extraordinary in more ways than one. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a bid to reach a common agreement on ways to end the seven-year Syrian conflict. Two key players were absent from the meeting: the US and Iran, with skeptics arguing that a road map to end the crisis could never work without the inclusion of Washington and Tehran.
But, that argument aside, the meeting underlined the urgency felt by the four leaders to find ways to kick-start the stalled political process, which has reached a dead end whether through Geneva, Astana or Sochi. The underlying fact the four leaders agreed on, to a large extent, was that a decisive military end to the crisis was not on the cards and that only through international and regional cooperation could a political resolution be reached.
But that is easier said than done. A final statement released by the leaders called for “an inclusive, Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process.” Ironically, the Syrian opposition, which is fraught with divisions, was also absent from the meetings.
But, while the leaders supported a vague political solution, there were disagreements over key details. Russia, the main stakeholder in Syria, was hesitant to back calls for an open-ended cease-fire in Idlib or to extend that cease-fire over the rest of Syria. It argued that any arrangement on the ground should not stop the Syrian government and its allies from continuing their campaign to rid the country of terrorist groups.
For Erdogan, cementing his recent agreement with Putin on Idlib was a major concern. Ankara has been praising the fact that its plan to identify various rebel groups in the province was working, as well as efforts to pressure these groups to hand over their heavy weapons. France and Germany welcomed that agreement, which averted an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.
Also for Turkey, maintaining the Idlib cease-fire would give it the opportunity to shift its attention to Kurdish military activities east of the Euphrates. One day after the Istanbul summit, there were reports that Turkey had shelled People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been expanding its de facto protectorate region in northern Syria. For Erdogan, whose position on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to be changing, the Istanbul summit reinforced Ankara’s right to have a say in writing the final chapter of the Syrian crisis.
For France, and Germany in particular, putting an end to the Syrian crisis should pave the way for the repatriation of over 1 million Syrian refugees in Europe, half of whom are in Germany alone. The refugee crisis had polarized European voters and boosted the chances of far-right parties in recent elections.
Putin used the meeting as a chance to underline and recognize Moscow’s special role in Syria. The Russian leader was keen to point out that Assad and the Syrian government he heads are the legitimate representatives of their people and that any political solution must be carried out in cooperation with both. As to the proposed constitutional committee, Putin insisted that setting a timeline — France and Germany wanted the committee to be formed before the end of the year — was not practical and that writing a new constitution requires patience.
But Putin knows that he needs the help of France, Germany and the rest of the EU if the reconstruction of Syria is to take off at some future stage. The Istanbul summit was an important step in that direction.
Regardless of what the four leaders agreed, it would be difficult for any political process to resume without the backing of the US and Iran. So far, Washington has been ambivalent over its goals in Syria and its military objectives in the northeast, while President Donald Trump has been indecisive over his position toward Assad. There is no doubt that rising tensions between Washington and Moscow will overshadow a credible agreement in Syria.
Iran’s influence in Syria is a thorny issue for all parties, not least for Israel. Tehran continues to beef up its military presence in Syria and there are doubts that Assad can do anything at this stage to curtail it. Iran’s regional reach, which now extends from Tehran to Beirut through Baghdad and Damascus, has become a major source of polarization that
threatens the stability of the entire region.
For now the four leaders can claim to have got something out of the Istanbul summit. But, despite the failure to set out a clear road map to end the Syrian crisis, there appears to be a common factor that unites them all: Stakeholder fatigue — and a recognition that the conflict must end soon.