G20 economic summit: It's all about Syria

Although the G20 is focused on economic policy, the big issue will be a response to Syria – not the first time the group has veered into security issues. 

Virginia Mayo/AP
A woman shields her eyes from the sun as she walks by a banner at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday. The Syrian conflict is weighing on world leaders meeting on the shores of the Baltic this week, and eclipsing the economic battles that usually dominate when the G20 leaders meet.

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As world leaders gather in St. Petersburg, Russia, today for the annual two-day Group of 20 summit, economic policy may be overshadowed by what’s not on the agenda: Syria.

Divisions over how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in August grow as the US continues to lobby for support for military action and Russia digs in its heels against it. President Obama won initial domestic political backing on Wednesday after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly authorized military measures in a 10-7 vote, according to The Associated Press.

"My credibility isn't on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line," Obama said in a press conference before flying to Russia. "The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing."

Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the sidelines of the summit after the Kremlin offered asylum to former NSA employee Edward Snowden, who leaked classified US documents.

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent, Fred Weir, President Putin has argued there “is no convincing evidence” that Assad launched a poison gas attack. Putin has exercised his veto power on the UN Security Council repeatedly against any military intervention in Syria since the two-year-old conflict began. Putin’s position, “in a nutshell,” is that:

… [An] exhaustive investigation should be undertaken by the United Nations to ascertain who [launched the chemical weapons attack]. Until then, the world community should undertake no action. If, after all the facts are in, a culprit has been definitively identified, then only the United Nations Security Council has the authority to decide what should happen next. If the US launches unilateral action without the UN's blessing, it will be strictly illegal, [Putin] says.

Though Syria is not on the G20 agenda, foreign ministers from “key states” will meet about the crisis on the sidelines. "Any G20 decision on Syria would not be binding, but Putin would like to see a consensus to avert military action in what would be a significant - but unlikely - personal triumph," Reuters reports.

China, which typically sides with Russia on the Security Council, backed the Kremlin today before the summit kicked off.

"Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price - it will cause a hike in the oil price," Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said.

According to Reuters, Chinese spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing today that those who use chemical weapons should be held responsible, but said a military response would “complicate the conflict.”

Iran has said it will support Syria “at any cost,” reports CNN.

In Europe, traditional US ally Britain will not be backing any kind of US military intervention – its Parliament voted against it earlier this week. French President François Hollande has expressed support for the US position, but his constituents have not.

The Telegraph reports that UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will be attending the G20 this week to help Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lobby on the sidelines of the event for an alternate solution: A peace conference to draw the Syrian conflict to a close.

After two years of stalemate in the UN Security Council on Syria, the G20 may be in the position to take up the reins of decision-making on the conflict, despite its strikingly non-security-related mandate.

In a commentary for The New York Times, Risto Penttila, president of the Finland Chamber of Commerce, notes that the G20 isn’t just about coordinating the global economic approach of world powerhouses anymore. This week’s meeting “will not be remembered for promoting ‘quality jobs and investment.’ Rather, it will be remembered as the meeting where the G-20 took over the role of the United Nations Security Council,” Mr. Penttila writes.

We have been there before. The G-7 started out in the 1970s as a mechanism for coordinating the economic policies of the world’s leading industrialized countries. By the decade’s end it was dealing with cross-border hijacking, hostage crises and the ousting of the shah of Iran….

For the G-8, the “Security Council moment” came during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. After months of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the crisis by the council and through other negotiations, the G-8 emerged as the forum for decision-making. The foreign ministers of Western powers and Russia reached a common position in June. The agreement was faxed to the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Within a few hours, the Security Council Resolution 1244 was adopted. The Security Council had in effect delegated its decision-making to the G-8.

The G-20 has had a similar trajectory. It emerged from the 2008 financial crisis as a mechanism for coordinating the economic and monetary policies of the world’s leading nations. Now it is dealing with the hottest geopolitical crisis around….

The UN is still the only forum that can authorize the use of military force. But it is no longer where pivotal decisions are made. The G-world, or multilateralism light, is where the action is.

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