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At Syria summit, leaders produce few answers to the endgame question

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Istanbul conference to look at possible peace efforts in Syria on  Oct. 27, 2018.
From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Istanbul conference to look at possible peace efforts in Syria on Oct. 27, 2018. (Maxim Shipenkov/AFP/Getty Images)
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ISTANBUL — The leaders of Russia, Turkey, France and Germany met here Saturday to seek an end to Syria’s long war, a process over which Moscow wields considerable influence.

But while each country stressed its commitment to ending the seven-year conflict, the summit appeared to produce few concrete results — underscoring the challenges of reaching a formula for peace amid rival factions, extremist groups and Western reluctance to re-engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At a closing news conference, participants reiterated years-long calls for a political, not military, solution.

Describing the discussions as “fruitful and sincere,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said all four participants agreed to support a United Nations-backed push to form a new constitutional committee for Syria by year’s end.

“There will be no real, sustainable, credible return of the refugees if the political process is not initiated,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.

A final statement from the leaders called for “an inclusive, Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process,” and the convening of a committee by the end of the year to work on constitutional reform as a prelude to U.N.-backed free and fair elections.

There were few indications, however, that this is likely to materialize in the short term.

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Participants in an earlier peace conference in Sochi, Russia, had agreed to form a 150-member committee to rewrite the Syrian constitution, with a third chosen by the government, a third by opposition groups and a third by the United Nations.

But the U.N.’s top diplomat on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters Friday that Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, had rejected the idea that the United Nations should play a role in forming part of the committee.

“Minister Moualem indicated he would get back to me if new instructions came from his own leadership,” de Mistura said. 

As discussions wound down Saturday, Turkish state television showed Erdogan, Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel strolling through the gardens of an Ottoman-era mansion, looking relaxed and ignoring the cameras.

Each leads a country buffeted to some extent by Syria’s war. Turkey has been hit hardest, taking in 3.5 million refugees while becoming a staging ground for terrorist attacks. “Hundreds of our citizens and security personnel have been wounded or even martyred,” Erdogan said Saturday. 

Russia has intervened militarily to bolster the Assad regime, which is also backed by Iran. Germany and France have taken in tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled the fighting.

But experts likened the summit to a high-level photo opportunity that mostly reflected Russia’s sway over the conflict’s endgame. 

“Nothing big should be expected of this weekend’s summit,” said Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute. 

“It’s mostly an expression of the very real leverage Russia, which has been lobbying for reconstruction assistance [without] political transition, holds over other outside actors invested in stability in Syria,” he added.

Russian air power has been crucial in allowing Assad’s forces to recapture all but one rebel-held area. Anti-Assad groups are now confined to the northern province of Idlib and surrounded by more than 2 million civilians.

Aid agencies and Western governments have long warned that a final assault on the area could spell humanitarian disaster. In response, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal last month to dial down tensions and ensure that a final battle was unlikely in the short-term. 

Across Syria, factions such as the Islamic State and militant groups linked to al-Qaeda maintain footholds and face airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition.

A war monitoring group said Saturday that the Islamic State group killed at least 40 U.S.-backed Syrian fighters and regained areas near the Iraqi border in fighting during a sandstorm.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said coalition officials had no confirmation of exact figures, “as both sides are taking casualties” in what he called a “difficult fight.”

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