Yaşar Yakış
Nov 02 2018

A summit on Syria in Istanbul: A step in the right direction on a long road

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Angela Merkel for a summit in Istanbul. The main item on the agenda was Syria.

It is clear that each of the leaders came to the meeting with different expectations. Russia said it would continue to support the government in Damascus until Syria had been cleansed of opposition terrorists. Thus, the leaders were able to hear from the highest authority Russia’s determination on this subject.

Macron mentioned that the work carried out under the framework of the Astana process would not substitute the UN process. The Astana process is a series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, hosted by Turkey, Russia and Iran which includes 12 opposition factions as well as representatives from the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, the UN has been conducting its own mediations and initiatives to find a resolution to the war in Syria. With his comments, Macron made France’s opposition to the Astana process clear. Seeing that this process had been making concrete progress, he did not want to be kept out of this process and had been forced to accept Erdoğan’s invitation.

Merkel’s main reason for joining the summit was to prevent another wave of migrants heading into Europe from Idlib.

The United States, which was not present at the summit, has different agenda in Syria. Washington’s priority is to provide arms, equipment, ammunition and training to the Syrian Kurds. This ensures both that they will have a strong position at the negotiating table when it comes to the future of Syria, and aims to prevent Iran from settling in the country.

Erdoğan and Putin gained the most from this summit. Erdoğan insisted upon his demand that the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a leftist Kurdish organisation, and its Syrian-Kurdish wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), both designated as terrorists by Ankara, are eliminated from the area of Syria east of the Euphrates River. 

As a result, the following wording was included in the statement released at the end of the summit:

“(The leaders) Expressed their determination to reject separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries.” 

It was clear that this statement referred to the US-backed Kurdish groups east of the Euphrates. Thus, Erdoğan was able to gain the support of these other leaders for his own view on the PKK threat. 

The other winner of this summit was Russia. Above all, Putin managed to involve Germany and France in certain decisions of the Astana process that he had initiated with Turkey and Iran. Second, he managed to convince France and Germany to come out against the United States’ relations with the Kurds. Third, further exploiting the rift in relations between the US and Turkey, he managed to send a positive message to Ankara while further isolating the United States in the greater balance of power in Syria.         

No one expected the tangled mass of Syria’s problems to be solved in one summit meeting. However, this summit was a step in the right direction. One of those steps was the decision that Syria’s constitutional committee should be held before the end of the year. This does not mean that they will meet for sure. However, a joint statement issued on the subject by these leaders is an important development.

It is not yet clear who will sit on the constitutional committee. The largest divergence of opinion is probably between Turkey and Russia. No matter what name they are under, Turkey does not look positively at the inclusion of the PYD, the organization which administers the Kurdish dominated Northeastern part of Syria. Russia, on the other hand, doesn’t want to leave any party out of the process. These two countries will have to confront their differences sooner or later.

The second important step forward that came out of this summit was that the leaders of the four countries emphasized once again the importance of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This resolution calls for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition.

Each leader attached a different meaning to this resolution.

Erdoğan, in a statement, explained that he doesn’t believe “Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has any role in Syria’s future. He is responsible for the deaths of more than a million of his citizens and ongoing massacres”.

The most clear-cut position is that of Russia. Putin stated that he was against putting any conditions that will restrain the choice of the Syrian people.

The attitude of the other countries could be summarized as ‘the decision on Syria’s future should be made by the Syrians, but it will not be good if they decide to re-elect Assad as their leader’.

The third important step made was the re-affirmation of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Until now, none of the countries had made a statement challenging Syria’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. However, re-emphasizing this fact in the summit’s final communique is a positive step since a number of foreign countries keep a military presence in Syria despite the Syrian authorities’ protest. 

Since the situation in Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria, is very active, it occupied an important place at this summit. According to the agreement made between Erdoğan and Putin at Sochi on April 17th, by the 10th of October all artillery would be removed from within 20 kilometers of Idlib, and all extremist groups would be pushed beyond that boundary by the 15th of October.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated that they were so far 90 percent compliance with this agreement. It would be wrong to see this as a failure by focusing on the un-achieved part of this task. The efforts have to be continued in an intensified manner in order to accomplish the mission.

Putin acknowledged that although this agreement’s expectations had not been completely fulfilled, Turkey was doing all it could and could not be blamed. He made a point of honouring Turkey by noting that Turkey’s struggle against these terrorist groups had been very successful.

More positive results may be expected if Turkey, Iran, and Russia continue to work together on the subject of Syria.

        

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.