On February 22, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that a summit would be held on March 5 in Istanbul, involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss the situation in Idlib. If confirmed by all participants, the meeting will be an opportunity for the leaders to try and disentangle the complex contradictions of the war in northwestern Syria. The chances of success are slim, especially as Turkey and Russia hold conflicting positions.
The deal agreed in Sochi between Ankara and Moscow in September 2018 to create and police a buffer zone in Idlib Governorate was flawed from the beginning. Russia, as well as Iran, always had two objectives—to eliminate the remaining jihadis in the region and to return Idlib to Syrian regime control. Ankara, which had provided weapons and training to groups fighting the Assad regime, wasn’t intent on physically eliminating hundreds of fighters.
Now, the more than 800,000 internally displaced people are mostly confined in extremely precarious conditions to areas along the border with Turkey’s Hatay Province. This has caused tensions between Erdoğan and Putin that have reached unprecedented levels as the Turkish army has lost more than a dozen soldiers to fire from Syrian or Russian forces. This Russian-Turkish conflict over Idlib casts a long shadow over what had otherwise been a burgeoning partnership. Moscow had tolerated several Turkish incursions into Syria—Operations Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Springs of Peace—and had also sold Turkey the S-400 air defense system, sending Russian personnel to provide technical assistance.
When confronted with the mounting number of refugees on Turkey’s borders, Erdoğan, who hasn’t spared European leaders from verbal attacks and hostile moves on maritime borders or gas drilling in Cypriot waters, issued another threat. If European countries didn’t assist Turkey with the refugees, he would “open the gates” for them to reach Europe. To make the humanitarian situation even more difficult, Moscow has persistently refused to allow cross-border humanitarian assistance for internally displaced Syrians in Idlib.
Under such complex conditions, it is hard to predict how the Istanbul summit will end. One can ideally hope for four decisions, none of which are within easy reach.
The first and urgent decision would be for Russia and Turkey to agree to setting up a humanitarian area on the Syrian side of the border between Idlib and Hatay. This area could be some 10 kilometers in depth and about 160 kilometers long, between just north of the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa and the M4 highway linking Lataqia to the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo.
This is easy to imagine on paper and immensely complicated to implement in practice due to the intense agricultural activity in the region, especially with olive groves on the hills and irrigated crops on flat lands and along the Orontes River. Needless to say such an agreement would have to rest on a strong commitment from Russia, on security guarantees obtained by Moscow from Damascus, and on strict enforcement so that United Nations agencies and international nongovernmental organizations could operate safely.
The political issue here is the price that Russia will ask Turkey to pay. This could possibly include scrapping the Sochi agreement, withdrawing all Turkish forces from observation posts inside Idlib, and ending Ankara’s support for proxy militias. The gain for Turkey, in turn, would be the containment of internally displaced Syrians on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. Given the accusations from both sides about violations of the Sochi agreement, reaching a compromise will be immensely difficult.
A second decision is the role that France and Germany—and through them the European Union—could play in such an arrangement. This role is twofold. One would be purely diplomatic, where the EU could mediate between the Russian and Turkish presidents to try and convince them that open military conflict is no solution for either side, let alone for the Assad regime. The other is humanitarian, whereby the EU could agree to launch a vast humanitarian assistance scheme in the region. Such a role would presuppose several conditions, starting with an end to Erdoğan’s hostile narrative directed against the EU and also involving Turkey’s best partner in the region, Qatar, which could channel funding through the UN.
The third potential “achievement,” this time on the margins of the summit, would be an agreement to begin an EU-Turkey dialogue over maritime borders and gas drilling operations at a later date. These thorny issues are not legally or technically linked to the Syrian situation. However, if Erdoğan wants to receive help from Europe in order to deal with the refugees, he must realize that his disruptive language and actions on everything related to the EU cannot take place alongside his recurrent calls for Europe to provide such help.
Similarly, the Turkish president will also have to come to terms with the notion that renewed economic cooperation between the EU and Turkey will not come without some improvement in the rule of law in Turkey. Why would EU businesses and banks risk their money in a country where arbitrary decisions have become increasingly frequent? EU leaders will likely raise the case again of Osman Kavala, who was recently acquitted in the trial of persons accused of involvement in anti-government protests in Gezi Park in 2013. After his acquittal he was immediately imprisoned on an equally spurious charge of being part of the July 2016 military coup attempt.
The fourth decision is purely internal to the EU. The next Istanbul summit would be an ideal opportunity to bring the EU dimension back into the debate over Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, as has just been done on Libya. The exclusive leadership of Berlin and Paris, which inevitably has to be translated into decisions in the Council of the European Union and the European Council, cannot forever be just a matter for Macron and Merkel. They agreed a few months ago to appoint Josep Borrell as the new EU high representative for foreign and security policy. He is a man of considerable diplomatic experience and political clout. So now there is one thing to do: Take him to Istanbul with the French and German foreign ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maas. This will reassure other EU governments and facilitate follow-up decisions in Brussels.