Istanbul summit failed to set out a roadmap to end the Syrian crisis
The recently held summit of leaders of Russia, Germany, France, and Turkey in Istanbul to forge a common approach for a political solution to the seven-year-old Syrian conflict failed to set out a clear roadmap to end the crisis.
The main divisive issues continue to be the political fate of the Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the presence of foreign military, the question of refugees and reconstruction besides the future of the Kurdish areas in the northeast.
The four-way summit was originally scheduled for early September, but major difference between the four led to its postponing. Finally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 27.
Apart from a very broad joint statement that emphasised the need to initiate "an inclusive Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process" to end the conflict, no agreement was reached regarding how to achieve this goal. The leaders, however, underlined the fact that a decisive military end to the crisis was not on the cards and that only a political solution could be reached through international and regional cooperation.
Observers are intrigued by the absence of two key players - the United States and Iran - at the meeting. They argue that a roadmap to end the conflict could never work without their involvement. Also absent was Syrian opposition, which is fraught with divisions.
Currently, the US controls one-third of Syrian territories through its alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Russia through the Syrian regime dominates a bit more than half of the country and the rest is under Turkish supervision through the Syrian opposition forces it supports.
Iran and Russia are backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Iran has provided significant support to the Syrian government including logistical, technical and financial aid as well as training and some combat troops. Its influence in Syria is a matter of concern for many as it continues to beef up its military presence in the country. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interest.
While the four leaders talked about a political solution, although vaguely, there were disagreements over key details. Russia, the main stakeholder and supporter of the Assad regime, was not in favour of an open-ended ceasefire in Idlib or to extend the truce over the rest of Syria on the ground that Syrian government and its allies should not be stopped from continuing their campaign to rid the whole country of terrorist groups.
After realising its military objectives of defeating the opposition and securing the regime of President Assad, Russia is trying to translate this "victory" into political gains. It also wants that reconstruction of the war-ravaged country should be detached from any political process.
At a press conference after the summit, Putin raised the stakes when he said that the Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey on the demilitarised zone in Idlib province is "a temporary measure", thus hinting that a military option is not off the table. Erdogan and Putin, under the Sochi agreement announced last September, a plan to establish a demilitarised buffer zone 15-20 km into the opposition-held territories in Idlib province.
Putin's statement is also interpreted as an implicit threat aimed at Turkey, Germany, and France that if they do not agree with Russian plans, they should be ready for an influx of the three million civilians currently living in Idlib towards their borders. The refugee crisis had polarised European voters and boosted the chances of far-right parties in recent elections.
Putin remarks that "we should pursue a goal that there would be no foreign forces of third states in Syria at all" indicated that his ultimate goal is to end all foreign military presence in the country. For Erdogan persevering the Sochi agreement on Idlib with Russia is a major concern. For Turkey, the Idlib ceasefire would give it an opportunity to shift its attention to Kurdish military activities. For France, and Germany particularly, end of the crisis would pave the way for the repatriation of over one million Syrian refugees in Europe, half of whom are in Germany alone.
Russia also seeks to normalise the situation in Syria by focusing on reconstruction and the return of the Syrian refugees. It wants Germany that hosts more than a million Syrians to lead the EU into a reconstruction deal. The four-way summit was important in that direction. Many EU countries, including Germany, seem interested to fund reconstruction in Syria but only after a political settlement reached.
Regardless of what the four leaders agreed, without the backing of the US and Iran, it would be difficult to have any significant progress towards resuming a political process in Syria. But the US administration has been indecisive over its goals in Syria and its military objectives in the northeast, considered to be Syria's breadbasket. This area is under the control of SDF whose core consists of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) engaged in a conflict with the Turkish government for decades.
Turkey believes that the continued presence of US forces near its southern borders with Syria empowers the Kurds and nurtures their ambitions for independence. The northeast area, which contains 90 per cent of Syria's oil and gas reserves including the country's largest oil field –al-Omar, is controlled by SDF with the support of the US and no government in Damascus can survive without having its control over the region.
Observers say that no significant progress can be made without a US-Russian agreement. In the absence of US presence, the Istanbul summit was doomed to fail. And possibly because of this reason French President Emmanuel Macron announced that on November 11, he would be hosting a US-Russia summit on Syria in Paris.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)