Syria war focus of 'last-chance' meetings at G20 summit

Syria war focus of 'last-chance' meetings at G20 summit
The G20 summit of the world's most powerful leaders may be the "last chance" for forging a deal to end the bloodletting in Syria, as Obama's term nears its end.
6 min read
03 September, 2016
Syria will be the focus of multiple bilateral meetings on G20 sidelines [Getty]

The G20 summit of the world's most powerful leaders convening in China over the next two days may be the "last chance" for forging a lasting peace deal to end the bloodletting in Syria.

The summit will see multiple, separate meetings involving different stakeholders closely involved in the Syrian war, most notably the presidents of Russia and the US, who back opposite sides in Syria; the Turkish president, whose country is now involved in a military operation across the border; and the defence minister of Saudi Arabia, the deputy crown prince.

At the same time, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Commission representing the Syrian opposition is trying to draft a final document presenting its vision for the "executive framework of the political process," which will include its ideas for a lasting political solution in Syria to be discussed as the Friends of Syria gathering in London on Wednesday, ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria.

Sources in the HNC told The New Arab the document will contain details of a proposed political transition, to begin with the creation of a transitional ruling body without Bashar al-Assad. The body would tentatively govern Syria for 18 months and bring together representatives of rebels and regime army "whose hands are not stained with blood," the source said.

Syria at G20

Forty world leaders will gather for the G20 summit, which is focused on building an open financial system and promoting global economic recovery.

But Syria, the world's most pressing conflict today, is also expected to be a key topic on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, on Sunday and Monday.

US President Barack Obama will meet both Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in turn will meet with Putin.

The US and Russia, relations between which have soured over Ukraine and Syria where they back opposing sides, have been trying unsuccessfully so far to reach a deal to end the war.

The key issues of contentions are the fate of Bashar al-Assad, to whom Moscow and ally Tehran have clung to; and which groups in Syria are "terrorists" and must be fought.

Although no formal meeting is scheduled, US officials have said the US would try to find an “opportunity for the two leaders to spend some time focus on Syria and Ukraine.”

A Kremlin spokesperson confirmed that the two will likely meet on the sidelines of the summit. “Certainly, it is fair to assume that there will be a certain brief or a more detailed exchange of views on the Syrian affairs,” said Dmitry Peskov.

The Kremlin also confirmed that Putin will discuss Syria with the Saudi Arabian defence minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during the G20.

Now with elections for a new US president just over two months away, Russian analysts say an emboldened Putin could see the G20 as an opportunity to press for concessions from Obama, particularly on Syria

The US-Russian dynamic

On Saturday, Russia suggested a meeting could also take place between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US State Secretary John Kerry on the sidelines of the G20.

Russia said the meeting, however, would only be possible if the United States "officially makes a distinction between terrorists and opposition groups in Syria"

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian state-run agency Sputnik: "Participation of State Secretary [John Kerry] and Foreign Minister [Sergei Lavrov] in the G20 events in Hangzhou creates the moment, we do not have the timing set...but the main point is...we are doubtful that our American colleagues are able to overcome what is the main obstacle now for reaching the final agreement on Syria — mainly, the long-standing issue of differentiating between Daesh terrorists and those groupings that the US military structures work with."

"This is the main obstacle for the resolution of [the] Aleppo situation", he added, in reference to the ongoin battle for Aleppo between the Syrian regime and rebels that Moscow describes as terrorists.

According to an AFP analysis, the G20 summit starting in China on Sunday gives Russian President Vladimir Putin "one more chance" to try to strongarm US leader Barack Obama over Syria.

Now with elections for a new US president just over two months away, Russian analysts say an emboldened Putin could see the G20 as an opportunity to press for concessions from Obama, particularly on Syria if he wants to make progress on the war before leaving office.

Putin "will try to get from Barack Obama... what he hasn't been able to obtain from Washington in the past," independent political analyst Maria Lipman told AFP.

The two countries have been trying to hammer out a deal on a new ceasefire in Syria and possible cooperation against the Islamic State group and other radical jihadists, but their top diplomats failed to clinch a final agreement at talks in Geneva last week.

Obama said earlier in August that while "the US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts" against jihadists, there remained a fundamental gulf.

With the more hawkish Hillary Clinton now favourite to beat Donald Trump to be the next president, Russian analysts say that Moscow realises it might face a tougher US response in the future, making it opportune for both Washington and Moscow to push for a deal before January.

Erdogan is hoping to push for a ceasefire to be in force in Syria before the Eid al-Adha holiday

Erdogan's tight rope

US President Barak Obama will also have an official meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Obama wants to discuss the war with Islamic State, promotion of stability in Syria, and events in Turkey after the failed coup, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

The two presidents are expected to meet on Sunday. The Turkish army’s incursion into Syria and recent clashes with Kurdish forces, a key American ally, are also likely to be raised.

The White House has said it opposes Turkey’s push into areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“We do not support Turkish forces moving south of Jarablus and engaging with SDF, and SDF should not engage Turkey in return," Rhodes said during a press briefing last week, adding that "further action against the SDF would complicate efforts to have that united front against ISIL (IS) that we want."

Putin and Erdogan are scheduled to meet as their two countries continue to normalise ties

On Saturday, one day before the leaders’ meetings, Putin and Erdogan are scheduled to meet as their two countries continue to normalise ties.

Erdogan is hoping to push for a ceasefire to be in force in Syria before the Eid al-Adha holiday, which will begin on September 12, presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin confirmed last week. ... a cease-fire...before Eid... will also be on the table with interlocutors at the G20," he told reporters.

Erdogan and Putin will also discuss the normalisation process between Turkey and Russia as well as bilateral cooperation process, especially in energy, trade and economy sectors.

Ties between Moscow and Ankara entered a new phase following the August 9 meeting between Erdogan and Putin in St. Petersburg.

Relations between the two countries soured last November after the downing of the Russian jet, which had violated Turkish airspace along the Syrian border.

The issue seemed largely resolved on June 29 through a letter and subsequent telephone calls between the countries’ leaders.

Putin gave his support to Turkey during the July 15 coup attempt and said he stood by the elected government in Ankara, offering his condolences to the victims of what Erdogan called the “most heinous” armed coup attempt in modern Turkish history.

Agencies contributed