St. Petersburg Summit Sees G-20 Split over Syria

Discussions over Syria at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg proved divisive. Photo: GovernmentZA for flickr

Discussions over Syria at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg proved divisive. Photo: GovernmentZA for flickr

Discord and disunity were the orders of the day in St. Petersburg, as the 2013 G-20 summit came and went, with Syria sharply dividing the economic group’s members.

French President François Hollande insisted afterwards that the meeting had been a productive one. But Hollande’s optimism could not conceal the summit’s icy environment—particularly between the United States and Russia.

U.S. President Barack Obama was snubbed even as he arrived on the tarmac, as he was greeted by three minor Russian bureaucrats. This perfunctory welcome set the tone for two days of Russian sniping at U.S. policy on issues including Syria, leaker Edward Snowden, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Of all the issues discussed in St. Petersburg, Syria was undeniably the wedge, splitting the group of 19 states and the European Union nearly down the middle. In a joint statement, 12 members, led by the U.S. and France, backed limited military action in Syria, while the remainder stood by Russia in opposition to Western intervention.

Even among members calling for intervention, there was disunity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not sign the resolution until a day after the summit’s end, claiming that she wanted to first establish “a common European position” on Syria.

“We always think Germany should … be the advocate of the so-called ‘smaller countries’ in the European Union, who do not have the opportunity to participate at G-20 meetings,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, when explaining why his country’s government had been late to make a decision.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for an intervention, but after losing a parliamentary vote, British involvement in Syria is unlikely. With Britain out, a strike on Syria would be the first major U.S. military operation since the 1989 invasion of Panama to be conducted without direct British support.

The European Union notably refused to sign the statement. European Council President Herman van Rompuy told the press that there is “no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” and said that no action should be taken without U.N. authorization. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also said that the only solution to Syria is diplomacy.

The lack of progress on Syria notwithstanding, van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso were publicly pleased with the summit. The two leaders praised the St. Petersburg Action Plan for Growth and Jobs, which they said would help Europe move on from the economic crisis. They also lauded a plan for the automatic sharing of tax information among G-20 members.

Despite the summit’s uneasy atmosphere, Hollande was diplomatic afterwards, thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for “accommodating our exchange of views.” On Syria, he said that he and Putin had “differences of opinion,” but insisted that “agreements” had been reached.

“All of the countries [in the G-20] have condemned the use of chemical weapons,” Hollande said. He neglected to mention that while Russia has formally denounced last month’s devastating gas attack in the Damascus suburbs, the Russian government continues to pin the blame on extremists within the rebel coalition.

Hollande insisted that, despite the G-20’s publicized disagreement over Syria, the summit had yielded real progress, telling reporters, “we have tangible results on growth and jobs.”

Indeed, the summit did see foundations laid for a potential currency pool to prepare for any potential future solvency crises. But such an institution will be difficult to set up, and if relations between Russia, France, and the U.S. deteriorate further, meaningful international cooperation will become difficult to achieve.

Russia already maintains a military base in Syria, and has signed a contract to equip the Assad regime with a modern air defense system, which could complicate any foreign airstrikes. The Russian navy has also sent three warships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean.

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