Syria crisis focus of G20 summit in Turkey

Friday 13/11/2015
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses the audience during a G20 finance ministers conference in Ankara, Turkey, last September.

Istanbul - The conflict in Syria is ex­pected to dominate the Group of 20 summit of world leaders in Turkey but conflicting interests of major players at the event make progress towards a solution unlike­ly.

US President Barack Obama, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among leaders expected at the annual gathering of the world’s 20 biggest economies. The two-day summit is to begin on November 15th in the southern Turkish re­sort of Antalya. The Syrian war, in which more than 250,000 people have died since 2011, is raging just 500 km to the east of the meeting venue.

The meeting’s host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was expected to renew his call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to be removed from power. “We think that a controlled transition period is necessary,” Turkish Foreign Minis­try spokesman Tanju Bilgic said on November 5th. He said talks at one of two working dinners during the summit would be dedicated to the Syrian conflict and the refugee cri­sis in Europe.

The war in Syria includes the Is­lamic State (ISIS), considered one of the most violent and dangerous ter­rorist groups in the world, and has created shock waves in countries more than 3,000 km from Syria’s borders as EU countries struggle to accommodate hundreds of thou­sands of Syrian refugees.

At the same time, the crisis has rekindled Cold War antagonisms as Russia throws its political and military weight behind Assad and Western countries want the Syrian president to step down. Erdogan criticised Putin for meeting Assad in Moscow. The Russian Air Force has been bombing rebel positions in Syria since September 30th.

Khaled Khoja, the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, in No­vember called on the West to sup­ply anti-aircraft missiles to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel force fighting Assad that has come under attack from Russian jets in Syria.

Khoja said more had to be done to protect civilians from indiscrimi­nate air strikes. “The formula is clear. What we want from friendly countries is either to open up safe areas or to enable the FSA to do so,” Khoja told the Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu.

The SNC and other Syrian opposi­tion groups, branded “terrorists” by the government in Damascus, ac­cuse the West of not doing enough to strengthen rebel formations. The United States and other Western powers have been reluctant to sup­ply weapons for fear they might end up in the hands of Islamist extrem­ists. That concern is likely to grow after ISIS claimed it downed a Rus­sian passenger plane over Egypt on October 31st, killing all 224 people on board.

Even traditional partners are at odds over Syria. The United States has been supporting the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia fighting ISIS in northern Syr­ia, angering NATO ally and Syrian neighbour Turkey. Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist threat and the Syrian affiliate of the separa­tist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey.

According to the pro-government daily Sabah, Erdogan planned to tell Obama in a private meeting on the fringes of the summit that Turkey is ready to intervene in Syria militarily in the event that YPG fighters cross to the western side of the Euphra­tes river. Such a move by the Kurds would be seen by Ankara as an at­tempt to create a unified Kurdish area in northern Syria. On the other hand, US officials are reportedly concerned about Turkey’s military moves against the PKK, because that could weaken the YPG’s fight against ISIS.

Other summit participants can be expected to push their own agendas as well. EU leaders are expected to call on world leaders to tackle the refugee crisis. “Meeting in Turkey in the midst of a refugee crisis due to conflicts in Syria and elsewhere, the G20 must rise to the challenge and lead a coordinated and innova­tive response to the crisis that rec­ognises its global nature and eco­nomic consequences and promotes greater international solidarity in protecting refugees,” European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wrote in a let­ter.

EU leaders want Turkey to do more to stop the flow of Syrian refu­gees to their countries and are offer­ing billions of dollars in financial support as well as progress in Tur­key’s EU membership bid as incen­tives. In talks with Erdogan in Oc­tober in Istanbul, Merkel promised fresh progress in Turkey’s accession talks before the end of the year.

Coming shortly after the crash of the Russian plane in Egypt and a month after suspected ISIS mem­bers killed 102 people in twin sui­cide attacks in Ankara, security around Antalya is tight. Less than ten days before the summit, Turk­ish police detained 20 suspected ISIS supporters in Antalya.

News reports say about 12,000 police officers will be on duty dur­ing the summit at a coastal resort in Belek, a cluster of hotels on the Mediterranean about 20 km east of Antalya airport. A total of 28 hotels have been set aside for summit par­ticipants. Bilgic said 25,000 people, including 2,500 journalists, were expected in and around Belek for the summit.

Given the tight security, Turkish news media have been speculat­ing about where Obama would stay during the summit. Some reports say the Turkish government spe­cially built a villa with bulletproof windows for Obama, while others say the US president would spend his nights in Antalya on a US war­ship anchored off the coast.