ANKARA, Turkey – As leaders from the world's 20 biggest economies gather for a summit in Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be taking a victory lap.
Erdogan certainly shares the concerns about refugees and terrorism from nearby Syria that preoccupy leaders descending this weekend on the port town of Antalya. But despite Turkey's growing troubles, Erdogan will be a buoyant summit host, basking in a surprise election victory for his party that has left no doubt that he is the key regional player for talks on migrants and Islamic extremism.
The Nov. 15-16 summit is expected to be more heavily laden with political themes than usual for what is normally an economic gathering — with the Syrian crisis at the center of attention. Erdogan, who will be hosting U.S. President Barack Obama, Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping among other leaders, has insisted that the perils posed by Syria are casting a shadow on world security and stability, and therefore on the global economy.
The spillover from Syria certainly poses a threat to Turkey, which has faced some of the worst suicide bombings in its history in recent months, believed to be the work of followers of the Islamic State group. The country is also confronting renewed conflict with Kurdish militants amid the breakdown of one of Erdogan's signature achievement's — a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Erdogan's crackdown on critics of all stripes has intensified concern in the West about his commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
But as a summit host with a thumping new mandate, Erdogan has a golden opportunity to push his priorities with global leaders. He has been advocating an interventionist vision in Syria for years, while complaining about Western inaction. And he says he'll lobby at the summit for his proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria that would allow refugees to return to their homeland.
The meeting also comes amid talks with European countries about stemming the deluge of refugees spilling into Europe — with the EU offering Turkey cash incentives and progress on its EU membership bid in exchange for doing more to keep migrants within its borders. More than 2 million refugees are already in Turkey, which has spent more than US$8 billion since 2011 caring for them.
"Of course the economy is the G-20's real reason for being but in our day it is not possible to consider the economy separately from politics, social developments and security," Erdogan said this week. "The Syrian issue has created humanitarian dimension, a terror dimension and economic impact."
On the economy, the Turkish G-20 agenda includes job creation for women and youths, and ways to boost small and medium-sized enterprises.
"As long as we cannot ensure that all sections of society benefit from economic growth a prosperity," Erdogan said, "it is not possible to reach targeted growth rates."
As little as a few weeks ago, Erdogan's standing in Turkish politics was in doubt following a June election in which his party lost the parliamentary majority it had enjoyed for 13 years. But the party rebounded in a Nov. 1 re-run called by Erdogan after talks on a coalition government failed. Following the victory, Erdogan has turned his focus to constitutional changes that will concentrate power in his office.
Even before the election, European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were knocking on his door seeking help with refugees. The crisis appears to have provided new leverage for Turkish goals, including stepped up European integration, even as the EU criticizes Turkey for regressing on human rights and press freedom.
This week, Erdogan personally inspected security and other preparations for the summit in the secluded resort of Belek, near Antalya.
Underscoring the heightened risk of terrorism in Turkey, police last week conducted a security sweep in and around Antalya, detaining some 20 people suspected of links to the Islamic State group. Dozens more were detained elsewhere.
The Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News, said the Turkish military would ensure air protection, with the support of U.S. planes based at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.
Two massive suicide bombings in the Syrian border town of Suruc and in the capital Ankara — blamed on a local cell of the Islamic State group — have killed some 130 people in July and October.
Officials said authorities had prepared a second venue as an alternative in case of a security threat on the summit venue. Turkey will hand over the G-20 presidency to China at the end of the meeting, after what appears to have been a smooth run.
An event that until recently looked like an ill-timed showcase of rising challenges for Erdogan, is now likely to be a great stage for his political supremacy and Turkey's key regional role.
Butler reported from Washington
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