No one expected any breakthrough solutions from the Putin-Erdogan-Merkel-Macron quadripartite summit in Istanbul. Anyway, the summit results significantly exceeded skeptics’ expectations.
The mere fact that a common statement was released was a surprise: the initial differences in the parties’ positions foreshadowed seemingly insurmountable obstacles. However, they managed to overcome at least some of them. As a result, the statement reflects positions acceptable for the four parties and, equally importantly, it is acceptable to the Syrian government and other participants in the political process in Syria. The main provisions of the statement – the principle of territorial integrity and respect for Syria’s sovereignty, the unacceptability of military solution of the conflict, and the recognition of peaceful settlement as the only way to resolve it – all this creates additional international guarantees that there will be no territorial-political fragmentation of the country, and the presence of any foreign troops on its territory can only be considered temporary.
It is especially important that these principles, which formed the basis of the Astana-Sochi process, are now confirmed by the two largest members of the European Union, which are also main European members of NATO. This position is also noteworthy, because Trump’s shadow was looming behind Merkel and Macron: before the summit, Macron announced that he had a telephone conversation with Trump, and they coordinated a common position.
However, the shadow of Trump was, apparently, silent: the United States today does not have an agenda for Syria which corresponds to the present realities and it will not have such until the elections to the Congress on November 6.
Therefore, at least two statements by the Western European partners went beyond the usual positions claimed by the West: 1. Statement by Angela Merkel about the progress in withdrawal of heavy weapons and radical groups in the Idlib province; 2. Emmanuel Macron's statement that only the Syrian people can decide what system and government the country will have. Both statements can be regarded as advances in the positions of Western European states, albeit not fully defined, opening up opportunities for their further rapprochement with the position of Russia.
Naturally, the heads of Western European states are primarily concerned with the problem of Syrian refugees: 1. Preventing a new wave of migrants; 2. Opportunities for the return of existing immigrants in Europe to the Syrian homeland. Recep Tayip Erdogan is also concerned about this: there are already more than 4 million Arab migrants in Turkey today, the vast majority of which (3.5 million) are Syrians. Therefore the country may simply not be able to bear the influx of a new army of migrants of 3 million people from Idlib (they could then rush to Europe). This is one of the main reasons which prompted him to intensify cooperation with Russia on Idlib.
This situation objectively created certain advantages for Russia in Istanbul. Therefore, Vladimir Putin emphasized that “should radical elements obstruct resolution of the problem and continue armed provocations from the Idlib zone, Russia reserves the right to provide effective support to resolute efforts of the Syrian government aimed at rooting out this hotspot of terrorist threat.”
The further scenario in Idlib is evident: the demilitarized zone already exists, and its outlines are very clear. However, in areas adjacent to the suburbs of Aleppo, located north of Hama and north of the Latakia province, main terrorist forces remain and threaten these major areas of Syria.
Therefore, either Turkey soon completes the deportation of terrorists, or the Syrian troops will inflict decisive pinpoint strikes against them with the support of Russia. In any case, all these areas in the near future (preferably before the end of the year) should come under the control of the Syrian government. Only a part of Idlib province will remain under the control of the armed opposition, but the systemic presence of terrorists in northwestern Syria will be over.
It is clear that such scenario will have a positive effect on the solution of the migration problem: Idlib today is the main problem that impedes the restoration of infrastructure and housing in the country, the intensification of the peaceful solution process. The formation of a constitutional commission, again, is connected with the Idlib problem.
It is significant that none of the summit participants objected directly to the statement by Vladimir Putin, although it is clear that such a scenario is not convenient for any of the three leaders. However, it is obvious that they were not ready to oppose him with anything else.