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Four-nation Syria summit in Istanbul calls for lasting Idlib ceasefire

Leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany press for a political solution to Syria's devastating seven-year civil war
Syrians "inside and outside" the country must decide Assad's fate, says Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked here by President Emmanuel Macron of France (right) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, as they share a toast with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Istanbul on Saturday (Reuters)

The leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany have called for a political solution to Syria's devastating seven-year civil war and a lasting ceasefire in the last major rebel-held bastion of Idlib.

A joint statement adopted at the end of a major summit in Istanbul on Saturday said the countries were committed to working "together in order to create conditions for peace and stability in Syria".

It also "stressed the importance of a lasting ceasefire" in Idlib, while hailing "progress" following a deal last month between Syrian-government supporter Russia and rebel-backer Turkey to create a buffer zone around the northwestern province.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke for several hours with Russia's Vladimir Putin, France's Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the Syrian conflict, in which more than 360,000 people have been killed since 2011.

The joint statement, read by Erdogan, called for a committee to be established to draft Syria's post-war constitution before the end of the year, "paving the way for free and fair elections" in the war-torn country.

It also said there was "the need to ensure humanitarian organisations' rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria and immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need," the AFP news agency reported.

The summit took place in the aftermath of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

Turkish media reported that Erdogan held one-on-one talks with leaders on the summit's sidelines to brief them on the latest developments.

Macron and Merkel said on Saturday that they "want to coordinate at a European level on sanctions" on arms sales to Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi's killing, the French presidency said in a statement after the two European leaders met on the sidelines of the summit.

While Merkel vowed on Monday to halt German weapons exports to Saudi Arabia until Khashoggi's killing, which she called a "monstrosity," was properly investigated, other European countries have been more ambivalent in their positions.

'Prevent another humanitarian disaster'

The summit came after a week of escalating violence in Idlib, culminating in Syrian regime artillery fire killing seven civilians on Friday, the highest death toll there since the fragile ceasefire began.

Following the joint news conference in Istanbul, the leaders spoke separately, with Macron urging Russia to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bring about a "stable and lasting ceasefire in Idlib".

"We rely on Russia to exercise very clear pressure on the regime, which depends on it for survival," he said.

We rely on Russia to exercise very clear pressure on the regime, which depends on it for survival

- French President Emmanuel Macron

However, Putin warned that if "radicals" were to "launch armed provocations from the Idlib zone, Russia reserves the right to give active assistance to the Syrian government in liquidating this source of terrorist threat".

Merkel, meanwhile, said the leaders "have the duty to prevent another humanitarian disaster".

"The challenge is to end two wars: The war against terror and the war of the regime against large parts of its own population," she said.

"A solution cannot happen through military means but only through political negotiations under the leadership of the United Nations."

A rival United Nations plan for a committee to write the constitution ran aground this week, with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who attended the summit, saying Damascus rejected the UN having a role in the selection process.

The summit also addressed the plight of the millions displaced by the grinding conflict, saying that conditions needed to be created "throughout the country for the safe and voluntary return of refugees".

However, whether those forced to flee the country would be allowed to vote in a future election was left for the separate news conferences.

"We must advance with the political process at the end of which there must be free elections open to all Syrians - including those in the diaspora," Merkel said.

Erdogan, a vocal opponent of Assad, agreed, saying that Syrians "inside and outside" the country must decide the president's fate, AFP reported.

'Russia cannot replace US'

Aid groups have warned that a Syrian government military offensive in Idlib, home to three million people, could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the seven-year war.

With an assault by government troops seeming imminent, Moscow and Ankara agreed on 17 September to create a 15-20 kilometre-wide demilitarised zone ringing Idlib as Turkey sought to avoid an attack leading to a further influx of people across its border.

On Friday, Syria's UN envoy Bashar Jaafari maintained that the buffer zone was temporary and that Idlib would eventually revert to government control.

Turkey and Russia have held several talks with Iran on the Syrian conflict in efforts that have often been greeted with suspicion in the West. Saturday's summit was the first to include the EU's two most significant national leaders.

Syria's opposition, which has previously described Russia's military intervention in 2015 as an occupation, on Friday said it welcomed dialogue with Moscow.

However, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis told a security conference in Bahrain that Russia was no replacement for the United States.

"Russia's presence in the region cannot replace the longstanding, enduring, and transparent US commitment to the Middle East," Mattis said.

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