Obama's Hanover talks unlikely to yield new line on vexed issues

US president expected to discuss Syria, Isis, the refugee crisis and Libya with French, German, Italian and British leaders

After two days spent wandering the Alice Through the Looking Glass land of Brexit, Shakespearean make-believe and magical Windsor Castle mystery tours, Barack Obama gets back to the real world on Monday at a summit in Hanover to tackle a host of intractable international problems.

Heading the list of issues facing the US president and this EU top-table group – comprising Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron; Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel; France’s president, François Hollande and Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, plus Obama – are Syria’s civil war, the resulting refugee exodus and the associated rise of Islamic State terrorism.

Despite top White House advance billing, however, the Hanover summit , may prove more a catchup among friends than a watershed moment for decisive new action by the western powers on these and other vexed problems.

UN-brokered Syria peace talks in Geneva, which only got going in February after several false starts, are again in deep trouble. Last week the main armed opposition walked out, complaining the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was dragging its feet on allowing humanitarian access and freeing detainees.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s envoy, refused to say the talks had collapsed despite signs that both sides are gearing up to discard a hard-won ceasefire and resume fighting. He did, however, call on the western powers, which with Russia and Arab countries make up the International Syria Support Group, for urgent help.

Will Hanover have anything to offer? One key problem is Russia’s perceived bad faith. Although he announced a troop withdrawal, Vladimir Putin has continued airstrikes. Latest reports say Moscow has repositioned artillery near the disputed city of Aleppo.

Obama will also face pressure to demonstrate he truly understands the strain the unprecedented migrant influx from the Middle East and Africa has placed on individual European states and EU unity. There are calls for the US to accept up to 100,000 Syrians. So far it has severely restricted numbers, pointing instead to $5.4bn (£3.75bn) in US assistance since the war began in 2011.

Merkel, in particular, will be looking for a show of solidarity after fierce domestic criticism of her decision to open the door to a million refugees last year. She is also under fire for her perceived kowtowing to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Merkel now favours the Turkish idea of creating safe “no-fly” zones or havens inside Syria, something Obama - like Putin - has so far resisted.

The US-led fight against Isis will also be reviewed in Hanover. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said recently that airstrikes and drone attacks had killed Isis fighters and reduced the territory it controls. Obama may divulge why he believes the Iraqi army can retake the Isis-held northern city of Mosul by the end of the year.

The US president wants stepped-up European and Arab action in disrupting Isis finances, halting the flow of recruits and countering jihadi propaganda. Despite his talks with Saudi Arabia’s hawkish leadership last week, there continues to be no appetite in Washington for substantive western military involvement on the ground.

The summit conversation will likely return to Russia as the five leaders look for ways to fully implement the Minsk deal that halted the Ukraine war. It is more than two years since Putin seized Crimea and he shows no sign of backing down. Squeezing him is made harder by the west’s need for Moscow’s cooperation in Syria and Iran.

Addressing the 2016 Munich security conference, Kerry said: “Russia has a simple choice, fully implement Minsk or continue to face economically damaging sanctions. And the path to sanctions relief is clear, withdraw weapons and troops from the Donbas, ensure all Ukrainian hostages are returned … allow full humanitarian access, support free elections in the Donbas and restore Ukraine’s control of its side of the international border.”

It is a long shopping list that Putin is likely to continue to ignore, unless the Hanover summit can find new ways of pressurising him. Any such moves could involve additional measures to beef up Nato’s defensive posture on Europe’s eastern flank. Washington calls this its “European reassurance initiative”, on which they claim to have spent $3.4bn so far. After his spat with Cameron last year over Britain’s Nato budget contribution, Obama may again press his European interlocutors to augment their financial commitment.

Last but not least, the summit is expected to discuss options for dealing with the growing Isis presence in Libya. The new, UN-manufactured unity government’s reluctance to formally request western help notwithstanding, there is growing expectation of expanded military involvement – something that British ministers have repeatedly but vaguely alluded to.

Obama admitted recently he had his fingers burned in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi fell, calling it the worst mistake of his presidency. Neither he nor his fellow summiteers want to plunge into yet another war in the Muslim world. So on this pressing issue, as with the many other problems on the agenda, the Hanover catchup is unlikely to provide anything concrete in the way of answers.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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