Defeating ISIL without a consensus on Syria?

Defeating ISIL without a consensus on Syria?

World leaders attending to G-20 Summit in Antalya on Nov. 15-16 issued a joint statement calling to make the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) their “major priority.” They asked for more intelligence-sharing, more border control, more monitoring, and more obstructing of financial sources. These measures are actually no different than those envisaged against the Al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Almost an hour after Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu’s Nov. 16 press conference in Antalya - in which he rule out a Turkish army operation into Syria for the time being - U.S. President Barack Obama also said in his own press conference that a “boots on the ground” policy was not an option. “If we send 50,000 troops to Syria and there are still more attacks in Yemen, are we going to send more troops there too?” he said.

What Obama promoted in Antalya was little different from the line followed in Syria and Iraq for the last four years with no visible success: Providing arms and money to certain local groups and giving them support on the ground through the U.S.-led alliance’s air strikes. That line has already seen many problems. It was not long before a train-equip program through Turkish-U.S. cooperation for the so-called “moderate opposition” was cancelled after it was understood that some of them ended up changing sides - along with their U.S.-provided weaponry. There is also an ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Turkey on providing weapons to Syrian Kurdish militia under the Democratic Union Party (PYD): The Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Turkish security forces are engaged in a fierce fight in a number of southeastern towns as we speak.

There is more. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed on Nov. 16 in Antalya that there are some 40 countries helping ISIL, “including G-20 members.”

It was after the Syrian civil war broke out in early 2011 that ISIL was given birth to in 2013. With its extremist understanding and hardline Islamist ideology, ISIL has managed to win over not only militants under the influence of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates but also the grassroots of not-so-extreme Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not just Turkey; many European countries, the U.S. and Russia all failed to understand in time the real danger of ISIL and how it could grow so fast.

It is true that ISIL’s recent attacks in Ankara on Oct. 10, killing 102 people, and Paris on Nov. 13, killing 129 people, have pushed world leaders to be more aware of the global threat posed by ISIL. But they still fall short in fully understanding the immediate cause of the problem, which is the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The Vienna agreement on Nov. 14 - a day after the Paris attack and a day before the G-20 Summit started - set an election time for Syria of 18 months from now, with a transition government of six months. Accepting the presence of al-Assad in the transition government is a major compromise for countries like Turkey. But it seems that the Russians (and even more the Iranians) would still like to see al-Assad in power beyond the transitional government too. This is an al-Assad who is now able to control less than 20 percent of Syrian territory and who has driven more than 4 million of his citizens abroad seeking refuge from his terror. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Sinirlioğlu said on Nov. 16 that al-Assad’s candidacy in the planned elections 18 months from now would not be acceptable for Turkey. Obama also said there would be no place for al-Assad in Syria’s future, while they are still trying to convince the Russians. 

It seems that neither Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan nor Obama has been able to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin yet during respective bilateral talks at the G-20 Summit in Antalya. But it is clear that without striking a consensus on the future of Syria, it will be practically impossible for leaders to find a way to defeat ISIL.