Syria crisis focus of G20 summit in Turkey
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.