Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted a summit in Istanbul, on October 27, which brought together President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. The four European leader gathered to try to formulate a solution to the Syrian crisis. Although the participating delegations broadly discussed the current and future problems, risks and threats inherent in finally bringing peace to Syria, the summit’s final Joint Statement mainly emphasized the preservation of the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and unity of the war-torn country. The four leaders committed to act in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and noted that the UN Security Council should continue to act in accordance with Resolution 2254 (2015) and agreements struck as part of the Geneva conflict resolution process (Anatolian Agency, October 27).
The Turkish side planned to hold such a summit (with the participation of leaders of France, Germany and Russia) in Istanbul about two months ago (September 7). But these initial plans were suspended because of Ankara and Moscow’s bilateral negotiations on the hostile situation in the Syrian province of Idlib. The two sides ultimately reached an agreement on September 17, in Sochi, to create a “deconfliction zone” in Idlib province (Sputnik TR, September 17).
Turkey and Russia began their talks on ending the Syrian civil war on January 25, 2017, in a trilateral format with Iran—the so-called “Astana process,” since the first meeting was hosted in the capital of Kazakhstan (see EDM, February 15, May 20). And during a subsequent meeting in Sochi, on January 30, 2018, the three sides agreed to create a commission on writing a new Syrian constitution. For Russia, the Astana and Sochi processes have served as a foundation for conducting diplomatic negotiations on Syria. As a result and for the sake of maintaining international legitimacy, Moscow has worked to preserve these formats under the broader umbrella of the Geneva process, which was established by Security Council Resolution 2254.
The UN special representative to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, sometimes participates in the summits in Astana and Sochi. And Western members of the Security Council (the United States, United Kingdom, France) as well as the European Union and also Saudi Arabia and Qatar will periodically take part in these negotiations, depending on their particular interests or position (Birgün, January 26, 2016). Although Germany is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has an important role within the EU regarding the Syrian crisis and resultant refugee problem. Berlin as well as Paris have been closely monitoring the Sochi and Astana processes, largely from the outside. And they are cognizant of Turkey and Russia’s strong desire to ensure that the Astana and Sochi summits are seen as internationally legitimate. As such, France and Germany also clearly understand the importance Russia and Turkey denote to the agreements reached at the recent Istanbul summit.
It is worth pointing out that the US, the UK and other regular participants in the Geneva process (for example, Iran and Saudi Arabia) were conspicuously not invited to take part in the Istanbul meeting. In the Turkish press, one foreign policy columnist, Hasan Basri, has argued that this seems to signal the return of European great power relations from the 19th century (a new “Concert of Europe”) or even portend the coming of a multipolar world (Sabah, October 28).
Turkey considers the October 27 Istanbul summit a diplomatic success. It was particularly important for Ankara to secure Paris’ and Berlin’s support for the continuation and preservation of this past September’s Russo-Turkish Idlib agreement. Yet, European political backing on this issue is unlikely to rein in Damascus: illustratively, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as allied Iranian proxies broke the deal, on October 26, by attacking the Idlib and Hama provinces villages of Atşan, Lahaya, Um Celal and Sukiyat (Anatolian Agency, October 26). And of course, the Russian military has been actively assisting Syrian forces with retaking bits of territory previously controlled by opposition groups—including, pointedly, by forcibly pushing the opposition forces out of subsequent “deconfliction zones” (see EDM, September 20). Ankara now proposes opening a Turkish-Russian Joint Operations Center between the sixth and seventh checkpoints in Idlib in order to try to avoid further hostilities on the ground. And joint Russo-Turkish patrols are scheduled to begin in November, amidst the withdrawal of local militia groups from the province (Sabah, October 28).
The Istanbul summit may have further laid the groundwork for preparing a new Syrian constitution by the end of this year as well as establish an agreement between the warring sides. Russia is particularly keen on securing an agreement between the al-Assad regime and the Syrian opposition at the upcoming Sochi summit; while the adoption of a new constitution will be important to providing a notion of legitimacy for any future elections in the country (Stratejik Ortak, April 4). Going forward, all this will thus require firm political support from all four leaders who took part in the Istanbul summit.