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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

European, Russian Leaders Join Erdogan at Summit on Syrian Civil War

By Dorian Jones October 26, 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to host French, German and Russian leaders Saturday at a four-way summit on the Syrian civil war.

The summit seeks to build on a cease-fire between Syrian rebels and government forces brokered by Moscow and Ankara.

Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served widely in the region, says just assembling the gathering is a significant diplomatic achievement for the Turkish leader.

"To host this sort of summit with, on the one hand, Russia, Astana partner, on the other hand, the two NATO allies Germany and France, in here, in Turkey is quite a success for President Erdogan, to be honest," Selcen said.

The Istanbul summit is a result of last month's deal in Sochi, Russia, struck by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin that prevented a Syrian government offensive against the northwest Idlib province.

Idlib is the last main refuge of the rebel opposition. The participation by Berlin and Paris at this round of talks is tied to the deal holding firm. It's a commitment that analysts say Moscow appears ready to comply with, at least for now.

Moscow has said the Idlib deal is working and Ankara is complying with its side of the agreement. Under the terms of the deal, Ankara agreed to secure the withdrawal of radical groups and rebel heavy weapons from a newly created demilitarized zone between rebel and regime forces.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to use the summit to work on consolidating the Idlib deal.

With about 3 million people in Idlib, analysts point out that European leaders feared any Idlib offensive could trigger another refugee exodus toward Europe. The attendance of the French and German leaders is seen as helping to strengthen Ankara's hand in balancing Moscow, a key backer of the Syrian government.

"That it takes place in Istanbul has symbolic meaning because Germany and France will be the new actors participating in it," said International Relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "So Turkey plays the balance of power policy between Russia and European countries. It's a good tactic by Turkey to bring all these people together and talk about Syria."

Erdogan is expected to hold a bilateral meeting on the summit sidelines with Putin. While the two leaders are backing rival sides in the Syrian civil war, they have developed deepening ties in efforts to resolve the conflict. That relationship is causing unease among Turkey's NATO partners.

Syria's reconstruction also is scheduled to be on the summit's agenda. Estimated by the U.N. at upward of $250 billion, the financial means of Europe and, in particular, Berlin are likely to be vital in helping finance the cost of rebuilding.

"Everyone knows that such deep pockets do not exist, neither in Syria, nor in Russia, nor in Iran," said former Turkish diplomat Selcen. "China might be interested but only to a certain extent. So nobody will offer Syria this money. EU is needed, so is America."

Selcen suggests Berlin could have potential leverage over Damascus and Moscow to make concessions toward the opposition.

"It's like, 'if you want the money you have to redraft your constitution so that you will see a more equitable Syria,'" he added.

Little hope is being expressed, though, of any significant breakthrough at the Istanbul summit. Moscow already is downplaying expectations.

"We have already said that it would be probably incorrect to predict that the summit is held with the aim of reaching certain agreements," Russia's presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Monday. "We need to be realistic that this is not the case. But this summit is an excellent platform for comparing the notes, exchanging opinions and searching for possible areas of cooperation."

Analysts suggest the French and German leaders' participation at the Istanbul meeting, however, could yet mark the start of a new process offering significant impetus to finally end the Syrian civil war.

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