The Istanbul four? What the recent summit in Turkey could mean for Syria

On 27 October, 2018, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Turkey met in Istanbul to discuss the crisis in Syria. In a joint statement at the end of the quadrilateral summit, a “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic” was reaffirmed. Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated their stance that a solution to the conflict is possible only through a ‘negotiated political process’. Participants also expressed support of the Russian-Turkish Memorandum on Idlib signed on 17 September in Sochi, and called for the convening of the constitutional committee in Geneva by the end of the year. The committee would prepare a set of constitutional reforms to lay the groundwork for elections in Syria under UN supervision.

All participants in the Istanbul meeting were aware of the need to look for new approaches to the crisis, which entered a new phase when most of the Syrian opposition was defeated militarily. At the same time, it was clear that geopolitical tensions remain. President Erdoğan, who initiated the summit, is looking for the freedom to maneuver politically, and for new allies in the Syrian crisis. Turkey’s relations with the United States, despite the recent prison release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, are still far from ideal. The US’s unwillingness to extradite Fethullah Gülen to Turkey, the purchase of several Russian air defense systems by Turkey, as well as Ankara’s striving to act more assertively on international arena are still preventing its relations with Washington from returning to previous levels.

It is possible that by attracting Germany and France to their ‘side’, Turkey hopes to gain additional leverage against the United States in Syria with regard to the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Washington-supported Kurdish armed groups are classified by the Turkish government as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and a terrorist organisation. Therefore, when President Putin declared at the meeting in Istanbul that most of the country was liberated from terrorists, Erdoğan could hardly agree with him.

In addition, at times Ankara is in a difficult position because of the need to coordinate major decisions with Moscow and Tehran in the Astana process – and Russia’s and Iran’s positions do not always coincide with Turkey’s.

As for Russia, Moscow is interested in attracting France and Germany for at least two reasons. The post-war reconstruction of the Syrian Arab Republic has been one of the central issues in Russia’s agenda in Syria for several months. The EU is one of the most promising donors in the process. In addition, Moscow might be interested in attaining broader international recognition of its efforts in Syria than what it has in the framework of the Astana process. Moving beyond the Syrian conflict, it is possible to imagine that Moscow is hopeful that this new format of interaction with France and Germany will reinvigorate Russia’s relations with the European Union, which have been in deep crisis for the last five years.

The Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib is quite significant, as it is one step closer to stabilising northern Syria. At the same time, Putin mentioned that “Russia reserves the right to render effective support to the decisive actions of the Syrian government on eliminating this hotbed of terrorist threat” in case radical elements impede the implementation of the agreement and “conduct armed provocations from the Idlib zone.” This message was obviously addressed to Turkey, which is considered capable of exerting influence on the armed groups in Idlib.

France and Germany attended the summit in Istanbul motivated by concerns regarding the refugee issue and the threat of international terrorism in Europe. Hence, the joint statement emphasised the need to create conditions for the return of refugees to Syria. It is sometimes claimed that the acuteness of this issue for Europe is exploited by Russia for achieving its own political goals. For example, Al Jazeera published an article on the Istanbul Summit entitled “Russia’s new game in Syria”, although it was Turkey who initiated the meeting.

Besides that, working in tandem, France and Germany strive to promote the EU image as an influential actor in international relations. And, of course, each of the two is seeking to bolster their own strength.

During a press conference after the Istanbul Summit, Vladimir Putin said that participants discussed opportunities for joining the efforts of the ‘small group’ (Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the US), as well as the Astana troika (Iran, Russia, and Turkey) in the Syrian settlement. In practice, however, it is still too early to talk about such cooperation, since Iran and the United States were absent in Istanbul. The prospects for interaction between the ‘small group’ and the Astana troika are also hampered by the fact that the US has not yet articulated its own strategy in Syria properly.

For Iran, the summit could become a serious cause for concern, pointing at the prospect of ousting the Islamic Republic from central positions in the settlement. At the same time, the opportunity has not yet closed for Tehran to join this new format (if none of other participants put obstacles in the way), which for the Iranian government could be an important channel for interaction with Europe during a period of US sanctions (the new round went into effect on 4 November). Provided, of course, the ‘Istanbul group’, has so far gathered only once, and will have to evolve into a ‘format’ in the full sense of the word.

It is difficult to disagree with everything declared in Istanbul. However, at this meeting, as well as at many other international meetings on the Syrian settlement, neither the Syrian government nor the representatives of the diverse Syrian opposition were present. This once again highlights one of the main features of the crisis (and one of the fundamental obstacles to its resolution): the crucial role of external actors and, the fact that the Syrians themselves take a back seat in decision making process in their own country. Finally, it is to be acknowledged that the declared commitment of all external actors to preserve the integrity of Syria is certainly the right thing to do but in reality, every day that a substantive decision regarding the crisis is not made, the country’s unity and prospects for a successful reconstruction continue to crumble.

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Maxim Mikheev

Research Associate, DOC Research Institute, RU

Maxim Mikheev graduated from the history department of the Moscow State Lomonosov University, specialising in the history and theory of International Relations. With several years of work behind him with the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”, he focuses on studying the current evolution of the international system as well as on Russian-Western relations. Alongside international relations, his research interests include nationalism and identity issues.