October 29, 2018
At the end of September 2018, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States came together in New York and issued a statement. After repeating for the umpteenth time that there is no military solution to the conflict, they called on the UN and Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to convene, as quickly as possible, a credible, inclusive constitutional committee that will begin drafting a new Syrian constitution. They also urged him to report back to the Security Council no later than October 31.
While Mr. de Mistura has said he is not going to lay down the charge until the last hour of the last day of his mandate, this gives him just another month since his resignation will take effect at the end of November.
On 27 October, Presidents Erdoğan, Putin, Macron and Chancellor Merkel met in İstanbul for the Quadrilateral Summit on Syria. Interestingly, the four leaders came together in this format for the first time and concluded their meeting with a joint statement expressing a commitment to working together. Whether such meetings would continue either at heads of State or ministerial level remains to be seen.
The İstanbul meeting reminds one of the Normandy format bringing together Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. The case of Syria is more complicated. Because, there are the Geneva and Astana processes and different group meetings because some countries just can’t sit around the same table as is the case for example with Iran and the U.S. Moscow and Tehran would wish to make as much progress possible under the Astana process while others hope to shift the center of gravity back to Geneva. Turkey stands somewhere in between. This is probably why the four leaders emphasized the importance of increased coordination among all international initiatives. It may be that France and Germany attending both groups’ meetings would somehow try to bridge the differences between the two. Not an easy task…
The İstanbul Summit joint statement*didn’t say much that was new but the mere gathering of the four leaders in Turkey must have been seen by Ankara as a welcome development in moving the country out of its once praised “precious loneliness” especially in view of the local elections to be held in five months.
The four leaders repeated that there could be no military solution to the conflict regardless of what all those involved have done until this very day. Perhaps, sometime in the future, all the parties would agree that “there is no seeking a military solution beyond this point.”
The statement reaffirmed four leaders’ determination to fight terrorism in Syria in order to ultimately eliminate DAESH/ISIL, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council.
The PYD/YPG which Turkey considers a terrorist organization was not mentioned because the other three countries have a different view on this. Nonetheless, they 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.
The summit statement also called for establishing and early convening, by the end of the year, of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva that would achieve constitutional reform and pave the way for free and fair elections under UN supervision. Again, not an easy task particularly in view of the pending departure of Mr. de Mistura. One needs to remember in this respect that Russia has already circulated a draft constitution in Astana nearly two years ago.
To the satisfaction of Turkey, the statement welcomed the creation of a de-escalation area in Idlib, commended the progress made and stressed the importance of a lasting ceasefire. No doubt, Germany and France dread the prospect of new waves of refugees on Europe’s borders. Obviously, beyond the question of culture, they do not feel rich enough to welcome millions of people like Turkey has done.
Above and beyond everything else looms the question of what happens with thousands of terrorists still in Idlib.
At the four leaders’ joint press conference President Putin while expressing appreciation for Turkey’s efforts in Idlib stressed that the establishment of a demilitarized area as well as the de-escalation zone in Idlib is a temporary measure**. He said:
“… the elimination of the remaining radical elements remains a crucial task. We must not let the militants with combat experience continue their criminal activity, establishing sleeper cells in our countries, recruiting supporters and spreading extremist ideology and terror…”
The militants Mr. Putin has referred to can only establish sleeper cells in other countries if they somehow manage to disappear in the sand in the months ahead. And, preventing that remains the biggest challenge in Idlib.