29 October 2018
The summit meeting of the German chancellor and the presidents of Turkey, Russia and France in Istanbul this past Saturday has rightfully been called “unprecedented” by the world press. It was the first time Putin, Macron and Merkel sat together since the last G-20. It was the first meeting of two very different groups of backers of a Syrian settlement: the Astana Group, represented by Russia, and the so-called Small Group, represented by France and Germany. But by a conspiracy of silence its net results have been reduced by global media to the hopeful and empty generalization that “the solution to the Syrian crisis can only be political, not military” while the irreconcilable differences among the parties over how to structure the political process and what it will lead to remain unstated. Unstated not only by the French, German and Turkish media, but also by the Russian media, for which I take last night’s News of the Week with Dimitri Kiselyov on the state channel Rossiya-1 as my marker.
In this brief essay, I will focus precisely on the differing, essentially contradictory understandings of the cause of the Syrian tragedy, of the legitimacy of the Syrian government or ”regime,” and on the way that a political settlement can or cannot achieve what was not achieved on the battlefield by the opponents of President Bashar Assad.
My prime material for providing this analysis is the full video broadcast of the press conference which the four leaders held at the conclusion of their 3 hours of talks provided by Ruptly, the German affiliate of RT and posted on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cezjdhuEd18
It bears mention that such broadcasting is a very significant public service to the credit of RT and to the shame of all the mainstream Western media that denigrate the Russian news agency by calling it a propaganda outlet of the Kremlin. Full, uncut transmission of major international events represents the best side of the dis-intermediation that typifies our internet age. It allows each of us to draw our own conclusions on what transpired based on what we hear and see, including the body language of the leading personalities.
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Interpersonal Dynamics of the Four Leaders
Before the summit, many commentators spoke of the key role expected to be played by President Putin, for whom sitting down together with Macron and Merkel to talk about a collaborative approach to ending the Syrian crisis would appear to amount to a political victory. Ever since the crushing defeat of the Islamic militants in Eastern Ghouta at the hands of Syrian troops with Russian air support, spelling the near total military victory of the Syrian armed forces in the civil war, Putin has been knocking on doors in Western Europe to secure commitments of humanitarian aid to Syria and infrastructure investments essential to pave the way for the return of refugees from abroad.
To be sure, such a flattering advance interpretation of the event came from the “friends of Putin” community. But not only. Responsible voices in mainstream Western media conceded the same point – as, for example, a feature article in the Wall Street Journal ahead of the meeting: “At Istanbul Summit, Russia Seeks Role as Mediator of Syria War.”
The reality in Istanbul was rather different. Indeed, it was fairly obvious that Vladimir Putin was odd man out against the three other summit leaders, all of whom have not abandoned their ambition to see Bashar Assad removed from power and replaced by some unspecified government formed by Syrian civil society. And while the final declaration of the summit stresses their unanimity on the need for a political settlement, three of the leaders at the table seek to gain by the political process what their proxies lost to Assad on the battlefield.
From body language, it was clear that President Putin was frustrated by the positions of his talking partners. Indeed, on two occasions he spoke out in direct contradiction to the seeming consensus. One was his reminder to all present that the settlement in Idlib, namely the halt to Syrian plans to take that last rebel-held province by storm, was not binding on him if there should continue to be attacks on Government and Russian forces outside Idlib from the terrorist organizations within it. The second was his rebuke to his colleagues, and implicitly most directly to President Macron, for their referring to Damascus as the “Assad regime” when it is in fact the UN-recognized government of the Syrian Arab Republic. Indeed, in his next moment at the microphone Macron stepped back and spoke more respectfully of the Syrian leadership. Moreover, Putin’s criticism of the term “regime” with reference to the Assad government was picked up by the correspondent from Le Monde and cited in the last paragraph of her coverage of the summit as an example of the differences among the summit leaders over the eventual fate of Bashar Assad: “Un sommet inédit à Istanbul pour amorcer une solution politique en Syrie.” The author, Marie Jégo, was the one member of the French media invited to ask a question at the press conference.
Erdogan has in various forums over the past several months made blunders in his statements about Syria that exposed him to ridicule. The jokes at his expense seemingly ended following his conclusion of the Memorandum of Understanding with Putin over Idlib, which won for Erdogan plaudits from the West.
Now in Istanbul he appeared before us as the statesman, the peace seeker, the coordinator. He opened the press conference and, by far, spoke the longest.
To be sure, his recitation of some basic facts surrounding the Syrian civil war were faulty. He claimed that the Assad regime had killed one million of its citizens, when the casualties since 2011 are placed at 400,000 by UN sources, taking all casualties together and without attributing responsibility for any given share of deaths to the government or its opponents. But his mention of Turkey’s role as the host to the greatest number of Syrian refugees, namely 3.5 million, earned him a special position in talks that had as their ultimate objective the return of the Syrian refugees to their homeland under conditions of UN supervised peace.
Of course, there is bitter irony in Erdogan’s pose of peacemaker and humanitarian given that he himself has murdered his own civilian population in Turkey by his military attacks on the Kurdish communities in the east of his country. But hypocrisy is the common currency of diplomacy.
Merkel was the most unassuming, modest presence on the dais. the humanitarian voice placing greatest emphasis on saving the Idlib Memorandum of Understanding lest a government offensive unleash another massive wave of refugees into Turkey and beyond to Europe.
Her reticence is characteristic of her rule by silence these past thirteen years. It is all the more appropriate given the fragility of her hold on power today.
Emmanuel Macron looked and sounded cocky. His flag in Europe and on the broader international scene has been rising inversely to the sinking fortunes of Angela Merkel, and also inversely to his own political ratings at home. His confidence rests on one pillar: his newfound position as the favorite of Washington now that the Brexit-stricken UK is out and Germany’s Merkel is down.
Curiously, Macron made pains to convey to the audience that he is the stalking horse of Washington. I point to a couple of his statements that were, in the context, otherwise gratuitous and irrelevant to the proceedings. The first was his using the podium to express his condolences to the American people and to President Trump for the tragedy that had just occurred in Pittsburgh (shootings at a synagogue). Secondly his mention that he would be briefing the Americans about the behind closed door talks of the summit leaders.
At the summit, Macron was the most aggressively and openly opposed to Russia’s Syria policy. While international media reporting on the summit have fairly uniformly noted that there were differences of views among the leaders, none has gone into the details, which were made plain to anyone interested precisely by the remarks of Macron.
Macron insisted that the cause of the refugee outflow from Syria was and is opposition to the Assad regime. Under this hypothesis, no return of refugees is possible, nor will it be assisted by France, so long as Assad is in power. While France joined Russia in providing some limited humanitarian assistance to Syrians following the fall of Eastern Ghouta to government forces, it did so via NGOs and so far refuses to provide assistance to government held territory. This position remains directly in contradiction to Vladimir Putin’s request for infrastructure assistance, such as restoration of power and water, as a precondition for return.
A less politicized view of the refugee issue would suggest that those now in the Syrian diaspora abroad were fleeing not the Assad regime but the Islamic terrorists, or more generally, the chaos and insecurity created by civil war conditions. Proof that this is the reality was provided at the summit by none other than President Erdogan when he took credit on behalf of his military forces for two military operations on Syrian soil that “neutralized” 7,500 Islamic terrorists, restored peace to a substantial tract of land, following which some 250,000 Syrian refugees returned to their homes, by his estimate.
Macron also in his time at the microphone repeated his long-held emphasis on the inclusion of the Syrian diaspora abroad in the political settlement process. From his own and surely Washington’ standpoint, if this issue is properly structured the Assad regime will be removed by popular vote.
What was achieved in Istanbul?
Given the foregoing, one may reasonably ask what actually was achieved at the Istanbul summit.
In his own remarks ahead of the summit, Vladimir Putin sought to play down expectations of a global resolution of the crisis resulting from a one day summit. He said that it would be an opportunity for the sides to exchange notes on Syria, which is a quite modest if still positive objective.
And we have good reason to believe that the major topic for this note-sharing was detailed discussion of the Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding on Idlib. Not merely walking through the ten points of the MoU, but looking at how it has been implemented so far. That may well explain the presence of Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu at the Istanbul summit: to have all the military details at the ready for question and answer.
All parties to the summit have stressed the primacy of political processes and they mentioned the shared objective of a constitutional committee to prepare Syria’s future convening before the end of this year.
It is clear that France, Germany and Turkey are looking for a very different outcome of these processes from Russia. This might lead one reasonably to ask whether Vladimir Putin is able to properly defend the interests of the Assad government.
Can he be motivated to sacrifice the regime in return for some unrelated concessions from the West? This is a question which not only might arise in Washington, London or Paris, but also in the minds of fierce Russian nationalists who often question to resoluteness of their president.
In the given situation, such backtracking by the Russians is not really possible, given the vital role played by Iran, the third guarantor of the military de-escalation process in Syria, and the only one not present at Istanbul. There can be no question of Tehran’s determination to stick by Bashar Assad whatever the West may or may not do.
In conclusion, I believe that the world media, Western and Russian, have chosen not to highlight the issues I have raised here because of the complicity of the parties in presenting a fairly optimistic story to the general public while everyone temporizes.
The default position is that Damascus, with assistance from Russia and Iran, will complete its clawing back of all its territory, including Idlib, cost what it may. In that case, the Syrian crisis will in fact be resolved by military means, whatever gloss diplomats may choose to apply. How the country will be rebuilt if the “international community” continues to turn its back on Damascus remains an open question. This is the “lose-lose” situation that Vladimir Putin is trying mightily to avoid.