Nato country leaders will hold talks on Wednesday on the military alliance’s strategic priorities after a barrage of disagreements overshadowed the start of its 70th birthday summit.
Presidents and prime ministers from the 29 Nato member states are set to gather at a luxurious hotel outside London, after spats over Syria, Turkey and the modern purpose of an organisation founded as a cold war counterweight to the Soviet Union.
Diplomats are anxious over the potential for further rifts, after France’s President Emmanuel Macron clashed on the eve of the meeting with Donald Trump, US president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey.
“There’s a fundamental question about whether the leaders can keep the channels of communication open at a time when relations are so difficult,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the US and Americas programme at Chatham House. “There’s a danger things may escalate in a way that can’t be controlled.”
Leading European powers met Turkey ahead of Wednesday’s gathering in an attempt to lower tensions over Ankara’s military incursion into northern Syria against Kurdish militias that have aided the western-led fight against Isis.
Turkey sees the Kurdish groups as a terrorist threat. It has refused to approve a Nato plan to defend the Baltic states and Poland unless other allies brand the YPG Kurdish organisation as terrorists.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister and summit host, returned from a day of general election campaigning late on Tuesday to meet Mr Macron and Mr Erdogan, together with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
They discussed the humanitarian crisis in Syria and counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East.
The four leaders agreed to work together to create the conditions for the “safe, voluntary and sustainable return of refugees [from Syria]” and stipulated that “all attacks against civilians in Syria, including those in [the northwestern province of] Idlib, must stop”, a Downing Street spokesman said. They also emphasised the importance of supplying humanitarian aid across borders to north-east Syria.
But there was notably no mention of the return of Isis fighters to Europe — despite a jibe on Tuesday by Mr Trump to Mr Macron on the failure of Britain, Germany and France to repatriate jihadis who had travelled to Syria.
Mr Macron — who has said he wants Nato to prioritise the fight against terrorism — in turn accused Ankara of sometimes working with “Isis proxies”. He also raised concerns over Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 air-defence missile system from Russia.
Diplomats say Wednesday’s talks are being kept deliberately brief to minimise the potential for further serious fallouts and prevent the chaos of last year’s summit in Brussels. There Mr Trump flayed other allies for failing to spend more on their militaries.
The meeting at the Grove Hotel, close to the town of Watford and ‘The Making of Harry Potter’ film studio tour, is scheduled to last just three hours and to end by lunchtime.
Many elements of the gathering have been pre-agreed. These include making outer space an official domain of Nato operations and thus covered by the alliance’s Article Five provision on collective defence.