The Syrian crisis was inevitably going to be the elephant in the room at the G20 summit. While it was likely to be discussed, chances were that no matter of substance would be agreed to, and that we would see a classic clash between the “pro-Imperialists” versus the “pro-rogue states”, defeating the opportunity to find some kind of middle ground amongst a series of terrible options.
It was announced on September 3 that “key” G20 Foreign Ministers would attend the summit in Russia, from the usual Western bunch but also, most interestingly, Brazil, China and Turkey, in an ad-hoc manner.
Stewart Patrick, of the Council for Foreign Relations, then published a blog post reiterating the relevance of the G20 creating a Foreign Ministers’ track, especially in the light of the events unfolding in Syria, which he had elaborated on earlier this year in a memo to the Russian government.
Tensions were high going into St. Petersburg and divisions appeared to make positions between East and West rather irreconcilable at first.
But as time went by, interesting developments occurred, as wrote Professor John Kirton:
Syria dominated the St. Petersburg Summit, both in the discussions among the leaders and their delegations on the first day, and in the attention of the media and citizens around the world for a longer time.
The leaders showed that the G20 summit, initially designed as an economic institution, was now a full-strength centre of global governance, able and willing to address not just newer security threats such as corruption and terrorism but also more classic ones such as the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own people. Following the August chemical weapons attack in Syria, and the denials and divisions among major powers in the following two weeks, Russia's Vladimir Putin as summit host suddenly invited G20 foreign ministers to St. Petersburg and then added to the leaders' opening dinner at the summit a three-hour discussion dedicated to Syria where every leader had a say.
This allowed about half the leaders an opportunity to express strong support for the approach of "deter and deny" through limited missile strikes led by the presidents of the United States and France. Support came from the leaders of a domestically constrained United Kingdom, an instinctively reticent Japan, a long cautious Germany facing an election on September 22, a long reluctant Canada and an initially doubtful Italy, as well as Turkey as an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a front-line state, and Saudi Arabia as a leading regional power.
There seemed to be slight accommodating shifts in Putin's behaviour and position, as he suspended deliveries of Russia's sophisticated S-300 missile to Syria and did not deny that chemical weapons had been used there. There further emerged a common condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and consensus that they should not be used again by anyone, and not become a regular weapon of war. Should these advances politically deter and degrade Assad regime even before U.S. missiles fly or speed a transition to a less violent Syria, the St. Petersburg Summit will prove to be a striking substantive as well as institution-strengthening success.
However, the shocker during the G20 summit came when Russia’s Vladimir Putin made a suggestion to US President Barack Obama for Syria to cede control of its chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities in exchange for the informal coalition not to launch air strikes against Syria. Should Syria fail to do so, Russia might even join the military effort against Damascus. It was reported on a few days later, and the US government responded with very guarded optimism at the Russian initiative, but after positive signals coming from Damascus topped off by a meeting between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva a few days later, a satisfactory agreement was concluded.
Al-Assad’s regime suddenly fell in line, expediently joined the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and complied over all the initial demands and promised to destroy its entire chemical weapon stockpile by mid-2014. The rules of the game were just agreed to unanimously by the UN Security Council Resolution 2118.
While the current standing does not solve the Syrian conflict in itself, it averted another war in the Middle East. It has bolstered US-Russia relations, the relevance of the G20, the relevance of the UN Security Council, diplomacy and international law.
Moreover, the peaceful settlement of differences has helped to bring Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rouhani to have a direct contact with Barack Obama, the first such Iran-US exchange in 30 years, leading to the exchange of messages of good will in terms of promptly solving the nuclear issue in the Islamic Republic.
We must hope that this climate holds. We must hope that diplomacy prevails over the use of force. We must hope that Russia (and BRICSAM nations alike) realizes it can use its power and influence for good. But we must also hope that the G20 gains a permanent diplomatic track to help find solutions to global security matters which cannot be found anywhere else.