As expected, the October 27 Istanbul Summit on Syria, held by Turkey, Russia, Germany, and France produced good television. The four leaders were photographed overlooking the Bosphorus and seemingly chatting, although only German Chancellor Angel Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin can converse, in German, as can French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel, in English.
On Syria, the leaders made only mild commitments. However, in hindsight the gathering might be seen as a watershed in the long and bloody Syrian conflict, one that essentially confirmed the victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In light of this, we can derive four lessons from the summit:
Lesson 1: Assad won, but Russia and Iran will remain in Syria.
The final statement’s twice-repeated emphasis on Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was an unmistakable sign that all participants acknowledged Assad’s victory, though he was not present or represented. It may still take time before the Syrian army regains control over all Syrian territory and border crossings. Yet, an Assad victory also means a victory for Russia and Iran. Russia now has an air base near Lattakia that will be there for decades. Iran, although not present in Istanbul, has helped Assad prevail and will keep its crucial connection to Hezbollah through Syria, and most probably its rocket and drone production facilities for Hezbollah.
The commitment to a United Nations-led political process was very mild, especially when it came to establishing and convening a constitutional committee. Assad’s lack of enthusiasm for a true political process is well known, and the participation in governance of members of a genuine Syrian opposition is far from granted, as Putin himself admitted. The Kremlin announced ahead of the summit that no one should expect a breakthrough.
The summit’s endorsement of the Sochi Memorandum on stabilization in Idlib Governorate came as no surprise, but the words used papered over wide differences. The participants “[s]tressed the importance of a lasting ceasefire [a French and German requisite], while underlining the necessity to continue the fight against terrorism … [a Russian requisite].” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement well before the summit that jihadis should either be eliminated or arrested left little doubt about Russia’s views.
Lesson 2: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received an image boost.
Convening the summit in Istanbul and persuading Macron and Merkel to participate was no small achievement for the Turkish president. Although it was in many ways a gathering of incompatible agendas, the summit provided a welcome political gain for Erdoğan, who is facing political tensions at home, an impending economic catastrophe, and widespread international criticism. As the president stated before the UN General Assembly on September 25, Turkey has become part of the solution in Syria, and in Istanbul he succeeded in bringing around the table two of his fiercest European critics.
However, on an aspect dear to the Turkish leader, the fate of the armed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the results were mixed. The reference to fighting terrorism was limited to those organizations designated by the UN Security Council and therefore excluded the YPG. Yet, the reference to “separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries” will no doubt be construed in Ankara as referring specifically to the YPG.
The next question is whether Ankara will undertake military operations east of the Euphrates River and go all the way to the Iraqi border on the Tigris River. As things go in terms of Erdoğan’s political habits—he generally does what he has announced—the Turkish army has already launched attacks against the YPG around and east of Kobanî. This will create new problems with Washington and Paris, possibly leading to direct military clashes.
Lesson 3: Donald Trump has been pushed aside.
Washington’s fluctuating position on Syria and U.S. President Donald Trump’s conflicting statements about withdrawing or keeping troops in northeastern Syria ended up marginalizing the United States, at least at this stage. Yet, some 2,000 U.S. combat forces are present in the region, along with much smaller French and British contingents. Their role in the containment and elimination of the residual Islamic State jihadis in Syria cannot be ignored, especially as the summit’s statement put a strong emphasis on fighting such groups.
Although there is little doubt that Russia and Iran will want to see U.S. troops leave Syria, their presence represents a strong card in France’s and Germany’s hands in view of a future political process under UN supervision. But it takes fierce optimism to believe Syrian elections can be held “in compliance with the highest international standards of transparency and accountability.” Another key issue will be the place of the Syrian Kurds in any final settlement.
Lesson 4: France and Germany joined the political process in Syria, but at the European Union’s expense.
The two major European powers are back in the game and were able to introduce many of their priorities in the final statement—a ceasefire in Idlib, a Syrian-led political process, the voluntary return of refugees—without having to offer any financial commitments on Syrian reconstruction. That being said, it is daily cooperation on counterterrorism that will allow the countries to track down jihadis making their way back to Turkey and Europe. This explains why Macron and Merkel took the political risk of accepting Erdoğan’s invitation, despite his dismal record at home on the rule of law.
Within the European Union, Macron’s and Merkel’s presence in Istanbul, without High Representative Federica Mogherini being invited, conveyed a strong message that on crucial issues only the “big guys” sit at the table. This is a deeply held conviction in both Berlin and Paris and it has been so since the conceptual phase of the Lisbon Treaty. In this framework, the EU dimension only really comes in at a technical level, be it in humanitarian actions, reconstruction funding, or trade sanctions when needed.
The future will tell whether firmly isolating the purely political aspects of the Syrian peace process from the rest of the EU toolbox—therefore reducing the weight of the union to the size of its checkbook and the personal influence of two of its leaders—was a good idea. At least, after years of invisibility, there is an EU presence of sorts in the discussions over Syria’s future.