Turkey, US continue to differ on ISIL fight after G-20

Turkey, US continue to differ on ISIL fight after G-20

The G-20 Summit wrapped up its Antalya meeting on Nov. 16 after a roughly 48-hour marathon of intense diplomatic activity with scores of multilateral and bilateral meetings between the participating world leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the host and U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The timing of the summit had a dramatic impact on the agenda of the G-20 as world leaders met just a day-and-a-half after the Paris attacks and only a day after the historic Vienna agreement envisaging the start of a political transition period in Syria by Jan. 1, 2016. 

Therefore, world leaders had nothing to do but focus on the need for a global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a more coordinated and reinforced manner. This led to the release of a political declaration by the G-20 denouncing terrorism and calling on all nations to take adequate measures to stop the extremist terrorist threat. Plus, world leaders reserved around less than three hours of a working dinner on Nov. 15 to addressing two important byproducts of the Syrian problem, global terrorism and migration.

There were three very important bilateral meetings that took place on the sidelines of the summit: Erdoğan’s meetings with both Obama and Putin and the half-hour talk between Obama and Putin. 

All three leaders held press conferences on the last day of the summit, making their positions vis-à-vis Syria and the fight against ISIL clearer. Let’s try to summarize these points: 

All three leaders endorse the Vienna agreement and seem to be continuing to exert efforts for its implementation. The stalemate is on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future, though. Turkey and the U.S.-led Western bloc see no role for al-Assad, but it will be hard to convince Russia and Iran on this aspect of the deal. 

All leaders display no differences on the need to defeat ISIL, although they are aware it won’t be an easy process. However, differences can be observed in their methodology. Turkey has changed or softened its strict “first al-Assad, then ISIL” rhetoric after the extremist terrorists began to operate much more outside Syria, hitting several Western capitals as well as threatening global aviation security. 

However, Turkey’s insistence on creating a safe zone inside Syria where refugees can be sheltered has not received support from its allies. 

At the press conference, Obama was very clear on this: “A true safe zone requires us to set up ground operations. And you know, the bulk of the deaths that have occurred in Syria, for example, have come about not because of regime bombing, but because of on-the-ground casualties. Who would come in, who would come out of that safe zone? How would it work? Would it become a magnet for further terrorist attacks? And how many personnel would be required, and how would it end?” he asked. He, likewise, expressed his unwillingness at creating a no-fly zone over Syria, underlining: “The primary exception is those who would deploy U.S. troops on a large scale to retake territory, either in Iraq or now in Syria. And at least they have their honesty to go ahead and say that’s what they would do. I just addressed why I think they’re wrong. There have been some who are well-meaning, and I don’t doubt their sincerity when it comes to the issue of the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, who, for example, call for a no-fly zone or a safe zone of some sort.”

Obama also closed the doors on a magnified military engagement of the United States, reiterating that he would stick to his already-set anti-ISIL strategy despite criticisms from inside and outside the U.S.

“The strategy that we’re pursuing, which focuses on going after targets, limiting wherever possible the capabilities of ISIL on the ground, systematically going after their leadership, their infrastructure, strengthening Shiite [forces] or strengthening Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces that are prepared to fight them, cutting off their borders and squeezing the space in which they can operate until ultimately we’re able to defeat them – that’s the strategy we’re going to have to pursue,” he said. 

The point one should draw the attention to is that Obama named the Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIL both in Iraq and Syria without specifying whether he was referring to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an organization designated as the offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by the Turkish government. 

The U.S. strategy relies on local forces in taking advantage of armed local forces who might efficiently combat ISIL while coalition members conduct multiplied aerial operations in the coming days. 

Erdoğan, however, stressed that the fact that these terrorist organizations, the PYD and the PKK, are fighting against ISIL would not change the reality that they are terrorists, during the working dinner and presumably during the bilateral meeting with Obama. 

Having listed all these points of differences does not necessarily mean that the cooperation between Ankara and Washington will be ruined and negatively affected. On the contrary, recent developments oblige both countries and others in the coalition to put aside their disagreements and concentrate on stopping future terrorist attacks by ISIL. 

One can see a growing coalition with the inclusion of maybe some more countries to the ongoing fight in Syria which necessitates a deeper coordination between all parties but most notably, Turkey, the U.S. and France. 

The world has at last begun to understand that these political games only bring about more suffering and casualties across the world.