Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron outside the Vahdettin Mansion during a summit on Syria in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 27, 2018.
The leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany met Oct. 27 in Istanbul for a summit to discuss the ongoing developments regarding the Syrian crisis. In a final statement issued after the summit, the four sides emphasized Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the necessity of continuing the fight against terrorism in the war-torn country. They also underlined the need for resolving the Syrian crisis through a “negotiated political process,” while calling for providing conditions for the “safe and voluntary return of refugees to Syria.” The quartet also supported the Sept. 17 Russian-Turkish deal in Sochi on de-escalating the situation in Idlib.
The four-way summit, the first of its kind since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, was of prime importance in terms of its potential for establishing a connection between what has been pursued by Russia and Turkey within the framework of the Astana peace process and the European views toward Syria. However, this very point sparked speculation on why Iran, as the third pillar of the Astana track, did not attend the summit and whether Tehran had been sidelined by its Astana partners.
To address this matter, there is a need to consider what the summit in Istanbul was about and thus what implications it could have for Iran’s role in Syria. Based on reports in the media prior to the summit as well as the joint statement of the four leaders, it could be argued that the discussions in Istanbul were focused on three main issues: the fate of the Sochi deal between Ankara and Moscow on the situation in Idlib; finding a solution for the return of Syrian refugees; and accelerating the political process — including the formation of Syrian Constitutional Committee agreed upon at the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi on Jan. 30.
The first part of the summit’s agenda, namely the fate of Idlib, seems to be mostly an obsession of Ankara, which has been actively trying to prevent a military operation by the Syrian army and Russia to retake full control of the northwestern Syrian province. Moscow has repeatedly said that the Idlib deal is just of a temporary nature and that a military option will be on the table in case radical groups refuse to come to a compromise with Damascus. As a result, by trying to get the Europeans and Russia to sit together and having them declare joint support for a political solution to the Idlib issue, Turkey appears to have tried to maintain the status quo in the area and stop — or at least postpone — a military operation.
As for the issue of refugees, given the vast number of displaced Syrians currently residing in Turkey — and their persistent migration to Europe — providing conditions for their immediate return to Syria is a critical concern for Ankara, Paris and Berlin alike. This needs an urgent, coordinated solution.
However, Russia — seeing the results of the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue as its own unique diplomatic achievement and trying to have the central role in all international frameworks regarding Syria — was mostly focused on the third part of the agenda. As such, having the Europeans on board would have meant an important endorsement of Russia’s leading role in the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
When it comes to Iran, the Islamic Republic’s stance vis-a-vis all these three issues has been quite clear. Shortly after the Idlib deal was signed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed the move, saying that “active diplomacy will prevent a war in Idlib.” Hossein Jaberi Ansari, a senior aide to Zarif, went even further, saying that the Idlib deal “was based in its entirety on an Iranian proposal.”
As for the other topics discussed at the Istanbul summit, Tehran does not have any special position on the issue of refugees as this has not been a direct concern for Iran. Meanwhile, on the issue of Syria’s constitution, Iran is on the same page as the Russians, supporting the immediate formation of the constitutional committee. Indeed, after a meeting between the representatives of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Moscow on Sept. 11, it was announced that the three sides had agreed in principle on the list of Syrian government and opposition figures to form the committee.
Thus, given the nature of the agenda of the Istanbul summit and the need for the participants to discuss the issues among themselves and try to reach common solutions, it would be safe to argue that there wasn’t any real need for Iran’s participation in the first place. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi touched upon this point in a press conference Nov. 5, saying, “Iran is not supposed to take part in every meeting” regarding Syria.
On the other hand, the fact that other influential actors involved in the Syrian crisis such as the United States and Britain were also absent at the Istanbul summit indicates that Russia and Turkey were not about to form a new, independent framework for Syria from which Iran might or might not have been excluded. In fact, the four leaders’ joint statement reiterated emphasis on the role of the Astana and Geneva peace processes, as well as the Sochi agreements on the issue of the Syrian constitution.
Finally, if one is to judge the overall implications of the summit for Iran, Tehran can be referred to as an absent winner. Given the US focus on Iran’s presence and activities in Syria and France’s close alignment with the United States on the Syrian issue, Iran’s participation in the summit could have shifted the agenda — at least partially — to address Iran’s role in Syria instead, which would have been considered a negative point for the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, at a time when Tehran is striving to widen the gap between Washington and its European allies — borne of the US-EU disagreement on the 2015 nuclear deal — the very fact that France and Germany have entered talks on Syria without the United States is a positive development in the eyes of the Iranian leaders. This dimension of the equation, together with the two European countries’ apparent retreat from insisting on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, were important points that Iran achieved without even being present in Istanbul.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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