Who expected the G20 to close ranks and vote for US President Barack Obama’s planned strikes on Syria? Not even Obama. With differences among global powers running deep on how to respond to Bashar Al Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, there was no way a consensus could be forged. It looked as if it was not a question of gassing innocent people, but reasserting the positions already taken. For example, Russia and Iran are unlikely to budge from their support for Assad, having put all their eggs in the regime’s basket. A continuation of Assad in power is as much in their interests as Assad’s himself.
But the summit of the world’s twenty important countries held in Moscow has helped widen the debate on Syria. It created a platform for world leaders to express their views, argue with each other, make their displeasure felt about their rivals’ views and even issue mild threats, and at last leave the summit a bit confused, and without budging from their pre-stated positions. This is because diplomatic positions are not taken after debates with rivals, but after considering what works best for each country, even if its position is very detrimental to others’ interests.
After the summit, Obama sounded a bit confused about the way ahead, He acknowledged that his attempt to seek congressional authorisation for strikes against Syria was proving an uphill task and announced he would take the case directly to the American people with a televised address. And interestingly, the president repeatedly refused to be drawn on what he would do if Congress disagreed with him and voted against military authorisation. Even if he finally decides to go ahead with the punitive strikes after intense opposition, it would not achieve the purpose it’s meant for. A weak and confused president launching an attack against Syria will not achieve the same results as a clear-headed and determined president launching an attack. The outcome will be that the death toll in Syria will go up, and the consequences will be more muddled than they are.
Even as Obama wavered, Russian President Vladimir Putin hardened his position. He claimed that a majority of the G20 opposed any US-led intervention, and even provoked Washington and its supporters by insisting that the chemical weapons attacks were an act of the Syrian rebels designed to win international backing for an attack. David Cameron described Putin’s position as impossible. Putin even threatened unspecified military support for Syria if America attacks.
Obama will do his best in the coming days to win the support of Americans for his plans. There is plenty of uncertainty about what will happen next.
The Syrian crisis is turning out to be a farce. Never before we have suffered from such shortage of ideas.