Will the Istanbul Summit Offer Hope for Syria?

On October 27, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Turkey met in Istanbul to discuss the Syrian conflict in the absence of the United States and Iran. This quadrilateral meeting was the first serious attempt in years to advance a viable Syrian political process, but a breakthrough remains elusive without a tangible US-Russian engagement.

The Istanbul summit is a point of convergence between the Astana process (which includes Russia, Turkey, and Iran) and the so-called Small Group (which includes the United States, United Kingdom, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia); the two are separate tracks with different visions of conflict resolution in Syria. The Astana process began in January 2017 and aimed to create a ceasefire mechanism for the Syrian war; however, the collapse of the de-escalation zones it established (except for that in Idlib) weakened the alliance between Russia, Turkey, and Iran as the three countries began to ponder the contours of a postwar Syria they wanted to shape. The Small Group, on the other hand, was formed by the United States as an alternative to the Astana process, which has dominated the political and military dynamics of the Syrian war for the last two years. As Russia looks for help in reconstruction aid and in securing the return of Syrian refugees to normalize the territorial control of the Syrian regime, the US-led Small Group has tied providing international reconstruction aid to a credible Syrian political process.

For the first time, negotiators from those two tracks have come together in Istanbul and agreed on a minimal path forward. However, this summit excluded the more polarizing players, the United States and Iran, as the two antagonists prepare for a new diplomatic confrontation when the second wave of US sanctions against Iran takes effect on November 4. The Istanbul summit is a meeting between four major powers that oppose these sanctions and are resisting US pressure to force their hands in the Iran nuclear deal, which they continue to honor. The absence of US President Donald Trump from the summit reflects not only his disinterest in addressing the Syrian conflict amid a heated US midterm election but also his increasing isolation on the world stage.

The language of the joint statement released after the Istanbul summit was one of compromise, reflecting how difficult the challenge remains in bridging the gap between the Astana process and the Small Group as well as between the Syrian regime and the opposition. The joint statement was the first formal European recognition of the Sochi agreement that prevented further hostilities in Idlib. It also focused on the territorial integrity of Syria and the fight against terrorism while reaffirming the need to ensure access to humanitarian aid, the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees, and opposition to any use of chemical weapons. More importantly, the joint statement called for forming and convening the constitutional committee in Geneva by the end of the year with a goal to “achieve the constitutional reform, paving the way for free and fair elections under the UN supervision.” These elections, as noted in the statement, will be held “in compliance with the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.”

The Syrian Constitutional Committee

The core agreement of the four-way summit in Istanbul is to form and convene a constitutional committee by the end of 2018 as a milestone before holding a nationwide election in Syria. The 50-member constitutional committee idea was endorsed during a Russian-sponsored peace conference in Sochi last January, when 1,500 participants representing Syrian civil society attended (though it was boycotted by the mainstream Syrian political opposition). The conference tasked United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is stepping down at the end of November,to compile a list of potential candidates; however, since then the contentious points with the Syrian regime have been the criteria for selecting the constitutional committee and the party that should do that.

After a reportedly tense meeting with the outgoing UN envoy, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem affirmed on October 24 that the “constitution and everything related to it are purely a sovereign affair that is decided by the Syrian people without any foreign intervention.” De Mistura then sought the help of leaders meeting in Istanbul to advance the committee process. He told the UN Security Council that Mouallem “did not accept a role for the UN in general in identifying and selecting” these members.

France and Germany are filling the US leadership void on Syria given the stalemate in relations between Washington and Moscow.

As it is, France and Germany are filling the US leadership void on Syria given the stalemate in relations between Washington and Moscow. Their major concern is about Syrian refugees who potentially will be forced to leave Idlib if hostilities erupt there and who might end up reaching Europe via Turkey. Moreover, the European Union mindset is that endorsing a viable political process could ultimately secure the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees back to their home country. French President Emmanuel Macron affirmed that a “constitutional committee needs to be established and should hold its first meeting by the end of the year. This is what we all want.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shared interests with France and Germany because preserving the Sochi agreement in Idlib consolidates Turkish influence in northern Syria. Erdoğan remained vague on the political fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reiterating that this matter should be left to the Syrian people to decide—a stance closer to that of the West than to Russia and Iran.

On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that without Tehran, Moscow might be alone in its approach to keep the Syrian regime politically intact. Putin noted that a peace deal in Syria cannot be reached without “our Iranian partners” as “a guarantor country of the peace process, the ceasefire and the establishment of demilitarized zones.” Russian authorities hope to launch a Syrian reconstruction process and secure the return of Syrian refugees separately from a Syrian political process, and the Istanbul summit renewed the already existing international recognition of the Russian role in Syria.

While the timing before the end of the year is not new and has been previously mentioned as a possibility, there are three obstacles to achieving this goal. First, de Mistura will step down in the next few weeks and his successor, the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, will need time to assemble his team and might have a different approach—hence all players will wait for de Mistura’s exit. Second, unless there is a tangible US-Russian rapprochement, it will be hard to reach a compromise on a constitutional committee that can be effective. Third, the issue of the resignation of Assad is back on the table, which explains why the Syrian regime is resisting UN efforts and wants to have more control over the constitutional committee. The Syrian regime is less likely to sit at the table before it consolidates territorial control of the country and potentially before attempting to enter Idlib.

The constitutional committee, itself without a clear political framework, will not be enough to advance peace talks. Moscow has been in discussions with the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and the opposition spokesperson, Yahya al-Aridi, noted on October 26 that “a person who destroyed Syria and is responsible for the death of many Syrians cannot remain in power.” Russia will not pressure the Syrian regime on this issue without a clear endgame. Moreover, Moscow and Tehran are not ready to give up on Assad, not without a significant political price given the conflict dynamics that are currently in their favor.

Moscow and Tehran are not ready to give up on Assad, not without a significant political price given the conflict dynamics that are currently in their favor.

De Mistura met with the Small Group in London on October 29; but this group, under US leadership, has yet to come up with a game plan because they have limited leverage on the ground. The US deputy envoy to the United Nations, Jonathan Cohen, noted that “no one should doubt that the UN Special Envoy has the mandate to move forward to establish the constitutional committee” and that the proposed list of candidates should be compiled and selected by the UN envoy. While this US support came during a UN Security Council meeting, the issue has not yet been raised at a higher level by the US secretary of state or the White House.

Prospects after the Istanbul Summit

The Istanbul summit exposed irreconcilable views of how to end the Syrian conflict; it cannot be a successful model to launch a viable Syrian political process, as has been suggested. A US-Russian agreement remains a prerequisite for getting Israel and Iran on board while persuading both the regime and the opposition that they might have more to lose than gain if they do not strike a deal or at least enter serious negotiations. The parties have not reached this point yet.

The Istanbul summit exposed irreconcilable views of how to end the Syrian conflict; it cannot be a successful model to launch a viable Syrian political process.

The deal that came out of Istanbul reflects agreements regarding the priority of maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism in return for preventing further hostilities against civilians and advancing a credible political process. However, most of these issues might not depend on the leaders attending the Istanbul summit since Washington holds a major bargaining card in northern Syria in its cordial relations with the Kurds, Iran continues to hold the ground in key Syrian areas, and Israel will be tempted to exercise its air power to push back against this Iranian influence.

It remains to be seen if Turkish and European officials can convince Russia that Geneva—not Sochi—should be the location of the Syrian peace talks and that the United Nations—not Moscow—should take the leading role in organizing the talks. A confrontation in Idlib remains inevitable, and its strategic importance as the last armed opposition-held stronghold in Syria will be decisive. The fate of Assad is once again becoming the major sticking point; but beyond aid for reconstruction, western governments have little leeway to persuade Moscow to compromise instead of merely to engage. Moreover, Assad might not be keen to surrender during peacetime—when he refused to do so in wartime—without significant Russian buy-in and pressure. Indeed, the major obstacle for the success of the Istanbul summit is the absence of the American and Iranian endorsement that is essential for a workable and sustainable deal in Syria.

The major obstacle for the success of the Istanbul summit is the absence of the American and Iranian endorsement that is essential for a workable and sustainable deal in Syria.

There is momentum to try and revive the peace talks; this is reflected in the appointment of a new UN envoy for Syria, the ceasefire—albeit fragile—in Idlib, and the Istanbul summit. However, to advance a credible political process in Syria while avoiding the same long-standing obstacles, it would behoove the principal actors to consider five key policies: 1) reach a permanent and sustainable ceasefire in Idlib; 2) renew direct US-Russian talks on Syria between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; 3) remove the issue of Assad’s fate from talks, at this point, to help launch the process and ensure confidence-building measures; 4) include the United States and Iran in a new group on Syria that can discuss how to advance this process; and 5) clarify the mandate of the constitutional committee and place it within a defined political framework. Most importantly, without a clear and committed US policy, the Syrian conflict will continue to evolve in the same pattern, and this might very well lead to further hostilities down the road.