The first summit on Syria to bring together the leaders from Germany, Russia, Turkey and France ended with a new appeal for a political solution to the country’s seven-year war but sidestepped more contentious issues including the future of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
A joint communique after talks in Istanbul on Saturday called for a committee to be established and convened in Geneva to review the national constitution by the end of the year as one of the first steps toward a negotiated end to a conflict that’s killed more than half a million people.
“We had the opportunity to discuss what will be done in order to reach a political solution and achieve stability in line with the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron joined the latest effort to break the deadlock in Syria, meeting in a new format to shore up a truce preventing further violence in the country’s last rebel-held region. France was reluctant to commit to a meeting while Russia refused to consider a transition away from Assad’s rule, instead stressing the need for Europe to help pay for reconstruction once the war ends in Syria.
Russia and Turkey last month struck a truce to hold off an offensive by Assad’s forces on Idlib by setting up a demilitarized zone between rebels and pro-government forces. An assault threatened to trigger a fresh wave of refugees across Syria’s border, directly affecting Turkey and Europe.
Putin said Russia reserves the right to help Syria mount an operation in Idlib in case of “armed provocations” by militants in the area.
Asked if Assad’s future in Syria came up during the talks, Putin said “no personalities were discussed” since that would be counterproductive for the peace process.
The U.S. was notably absent from the summit. Russia has urged Germany and France to break ranks with Washington and help rebuild Syria so that refugees can go home.
Erdogan is a fierce opponent of Assad, a position that aligned him with the U.S. earlier in Syria’s war. But Erdogan’s position began to change after Russia’s intervention in 2015 turned the tide in Assad’s favor and as the U.S. started backing Syrian Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers an extension of separatists it’s battled at home for decades. In the past year he’s worked closely with Putin and Iran on plans to end the war, yet still opposes Assad’s rule.
“The agreement to set up the constitutional committee by year-end is a small but concrete step forward,” Elena Suponina, a Middle East scholar in Moscow, said by phone. “Nobody expected a major breakthrough, but the new format of talks is already a breakthrough in itself.”