World leaders descend on Turkey’s spiffed up Mediterranean resort town of Antalya this weekend for the annual G20 summit, hoping to spur broader economic growth and find common ground to combat climate change in the lead-up to the much-anticipated United Nations conference in Paris.
Progress on the economy and climate is crucial, but the elephant in the room is Syria, just a few hundred kilometres away. Never before has a civil conflict in a smallish state unleashed such havoc on the world.
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Led by the G20 chair, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leaders are expected to zero in on a trio of urgent, intertwined issues linked to Syria: ending the war, stemming the flow of refugees, and stopping terrorist outfits such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which was behind Friday’s horrific and audacious attacks in Paris.
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Turkey has called the G20 a “global crisis resolution forum”, and that’s what it needs in Antalya. More than any other neighbouring state, the war has bled into Turkey. More than two million Syrian refugees are nearly ubiquitous in Turkish cities. The war has sparked a steady drumbeat of renewed violence between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Two major terrorist attacks, near the border and in the heart of the Turkish capital, Ankara, killed more than 130 people and were most likely carried out by ISIL. Antalya, where authorities last week picked up some 20 suspected members of ISIL, has reportedly lost some $5bn in tourist revenue as a result of the violence. And Turkey recently committed to the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, allowing the US to fly sorties from its Incirlik airbase.
Ankara has spoken of plans for a major ground offensive against ISIL, and in Antalya will again push for international help in creating a refuge area within Syria. The US is stepping up air strikes and recently sent in 50 Special Forces troops.
Bringing world leaders together on broad plans to stem the refugee crisis, end the war, and stop ISIL requires a serious moral conscience, an iron will, and strong, persuasive diplomacy. These qualities are in short supply today, and expectations for the G20 had been low.
The hope is that Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish forces can push out ISIL, seize and hold territory and begin to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Recent signs have been good: On Friday, Kurdish Peshmerga forces retook Sinjar – a strategic town across the border in Iraq – from ISIL with US air support.
One key issue is the list of friendly opposition forces. The 50 US troops will coordinate with the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has had some success against ISIL. But Turkey sees the YPG as equivalent to the PKK, which the US and EU have labelled a terrorist organisation.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, meanwhile, want the US to expand its list to include Islamist outfits such as Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful rebel groups. Yet, because it has cooperated with al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Ahrar is likely to remain outside the US umbrella.
Similarly, for political negotiations to move forward, the US and Russia will have to jointly identify viable groups with which to build a ceasefire and political solution. But in recent weeks Moscow – which purportedly entered the fray to combat ISIL but has mainly been bolstering Assad – has bombed several coalition-backed rebel groups. Now, if the US-led coalition tells Russia who it’s working with, it’s probably putting a bull’s-eye on their back.
Another sticking point is the political transition, as Iran refuses to budge on its support for Assad. Yet, if only to move the talks forward, the US and Turkey seem increasingly willing to leave the door open.
European leaders have more pressing concerns when it comes to Syria. The first, in the wake of the Paris attacks, is terrorism, and ISIL in particular. Although French President Francois Hollande is no longer attending the G20, French officials and other European leaders are sure to request stricter border controls and greater international cooperation on counterterrorism efforts.
Then there is the steady stream of humanity making its way to the continent. Germany is closing its doors. Finland is offering tent and container accommodation. Sweden is tightening border controls. And Slovenia is building a razor wire fence. The desperation is clear: Europe needs to stop the flow of refugees, which is expected to reach one million this year.
“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,” the presidents of the European Council and European Commission wrote in a joint letter. It will be an uphill battle.
Several key G20 states, such as Russia, China and India, have been unaffected by the waves of refugees, and would prefer to focus on economic issues. But the EU will find a willing ear in Turkey.
Just last week Erdogan said coalition allies were moving closer to the “safe zone” plan, which includes space carved out for displaced Syrians. We have yet to see any official movement from the EU or the US. But after meeting in Malta last week, Turkey and the EU are reportedly closing in on a deal to stem the flow of migrants and help Turkey to cope with its refugees.
“Turkey may make some progress on the refugee agreement with the EU, but the attacks in Paris will complicate these negotiations,” says Aaron Stein, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The two sides are expected to meet again in the coming weeks.
Middle East quagmire
Like Beirut in the 1980s, after five years of war Syria has become a byword for Middle Eastern chaos and devastation. Nowadays it’s not only about Homs, Aleppo and Palmyra, but also Ankara and Beirut, Lesbos and Paris.
Bringing world leaders together on broad plans to stem the refugee crisis, end the war, and stop ISIL, requires a serious moral conscience, an iron will, and strong, persuasive diplomacy. These qualities are in short supply today, and expectations for the G20 had been low.
Widely heralded a decade ago, Erdogan’s star has fallen in the West – thanks to violent crackdowns on street protests and assaults on free speech, political enemies, and the rule of law. Yet he’s likely to be invigorated by the recent vote, and act more assertively on the international stage.
The Paris attacks surely boost Erdogan’s case, and that of European leaders, for unity against terrorism. But whether Turkey’s president can summon the will and skill to rally world leaders to meaningful commitments, and bolster his country’s reputation in the process, is another matter.
“We have always said that there needs to be an agreement in the international community against terrorism,” Erdogan said on Saturday. “We are now at a point where words fail.”
David Lepeska, is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.