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G20: US, Russia discuss war in Syria

Bernd Riegert / ccNovember 16, 2015

After the shock of the terrorist attacks in Paris, there has been some movement on the diplomatic front as both Obama and Putin met to discuss how to beat the terrorists in Syria. Bernd Riegert reports from Antalya.

G-20-Gipfel in Antalya Obama und Putin
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Walsh

The images running all day on the TVs at the G20 summit in Antalya were not the usual pictures of rather dull meeting rooms. Instead, TVs were tuned to news channels broadcasting from various countries and in a number of different languages. Paris, the terrorist attacks and the investigation were the only subject anyone was interested in.

The leaders of the 20 most important countries in the world were also only focused on one topic: How can we effectively counter Islamist terrorism, which in recent months has struck not only France but also Turkey, Russia, Tunisia and Lebanon? The members of the G20 all agreed that the war in Syria is currently one of the main sources of terrorism abroad.

Obama, Putin want Syria ceasefire

G-20-Gipfel in Antalya Obama und Putin
Obama and Putin spoke on the sidelines of the conferenceImage: Reuters/C. Oksuz

US President Barack Obama promised to redouble the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" (IS), the group controlling large parts of Syria and Iraq. At the same time, a spokesperson for the president called for greater efforts from the allies in the anti-IS coalition currently conducting air attacks in Syria.

Before the start of the summit in Antalya, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is also leading airstrikes in a separate campaign, said that "forces must now be combined." Unexpectedly, Obama and Putin met for around half an hour on the sidelines of the conference, and according to eye witnesses they had an intense discussion.

Obama and Putin's interaction during the traditional "family photo" lasted only six seconds, but this was considerably more relaxed than their last meeting in September, at the UN General Assembly in New York. It's not known what exactly the two presidents - who until now have been working against each other in Syria - discussed or decided.

However, a White House spokesman in Antalya said that they agreed on the need for a political solution and a ceasefire in Syria, and that they wanted the United Nations to mediate. Both presidents, he said, obviously welcomed the Syria talks that had taken place so far. It was suggested at the Vienna talks on Saturday that a transition government should be appointed in Syria in six months' time.

Tricky situation

To date, both Russia and Iran have supported Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. The US, Western countries and Saudi Arabia are demanding that he be replaced. It's now possible that the common fight against "Islamic State" could bring the two sides together. According to an EU diplomat on the fringes of the G20 summit, the formula could be: "Fight terrorism first and deal with Assad later."

However, Turkey is involved in this as well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is hosting the summit, is also conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq - but he's attacking Kurdish rebels, too. Turkey considers them to be terrorists. But the United States is supplying these Kurdish fighters with weapons, as they are the only ground troops in Syria who are capable of advancing against IS.

Merkel: 'We stand together'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expects the summit on the Turkish Riviera to send out a "strong signal" against Islamist terrorism. "We are stronger than any form of terrorism," she said, in front of journalists.

G-20-Gipfel in Antalya Bundeskanzlerin Merkel
"We are stronger than any form of terrorism": MerkelImage: Getty Images/C. McGrath

Merkel conceded, however, that Europe must protect its external borders better if it is to be able to register Syrian refugees and prevent the possibility of terrorist infiltration. In Paris, it emerged that one of the attackers may have traveled to France via Greece and Serbia disguised as a refugee.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker strongly rejected suggestions by conservative politicians in Europe that the EU needed to change its strategy with regard to refugees. "I don't like this at all," said Juncker, speaking in Antalya. "The refugees are not responsible for the attacks in Paris."

Europe, he said, would remain an open continent; refugees were trying to escape precisely the same terrorists just witnessed in action in Paris on Friday.

EU aims to better protect its borders

Türkei Küste bei Antalya G20 Gipfel
Despite the sunny weather, the atmosphere was gloomy in AntalyaImage: picture-alliance/ZUMA Press

European Council President Donald Tusk summarized the mood among the majority of the G20 members, saying: "We must take action now." The EU wants to strengthen its internal anti-terrorism defenses, too, and EU interior ministers will meet next Friday in a special session in Brussels to discuss their plans.

Many countries have already reintroduced border controls. Initially, this was justified as a way to enable the more efficient registering of refugees. Now, fear of terrorist infiltration may be used to justify suspending the Schengen regulations on freedom of travel.

The sun shone all day on Turkey's picturesque coast and the luxury hotels where the G20 summit was held, but despite this, the atmosphere was gloomy. "The sky has darkened," said Obama of the situation after the Paris attacks. The Turkish hosts cancelled all the usual musical performances during the evening dinner, along with the rest of the scheduled entertainment, "out of respect for the victims."