Syria summit doubles down on political push in search for peace

 (From left) German Chancellor Angela Merkel,  Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a dinner at the presidential Vahdettin Mansion after the Syria summit in Istanbul, Tu
(From left) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a dinner at the presidential Vahdettin Mansion after the Syria summit in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct 27, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ISTANBUL (BLOOMBERG) - 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 Mr Bashar al-Assad's regime.

A joint communique after talks in Istanbul on Saturday (Oct 27) 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 towards a negotiated end to a conflict that has 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 Mr 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 Mr Assad's forces on Idlib by setting up a demilitarised 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.

Mr 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 Mr Assad's future in Syria came up during the talks, Mr Putin said "no personalities were discussed" since that would be counterproductive for the peace process.

The United States 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.

Mr Erdogan is a fierce opponent of Mr Assad, a position that aligned him with the US earlier in Syria's war.

But Mr Erdogan's position began to change after Russia's intervention in 2015 turned the tide in Mr Assad's favour and as the US started backing Syrian Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers an extension of separatists it has battled at home for decades.

In the past year, Mr Erdogan has worked closely with Mr Putin and Iran on plans to end the war, yet still opposes Mr Assad's rule.

"The agreement to set up the constitutional committee by year-end is a small but concrete step forward," Ms 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."