Syria crisis: No clear winner in Russia-US G20 duel

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama Russia's Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama failed to see eye to eye over Syria during the G20 summit

Both sides have claimed victory in this G20 gladiatorial contest over Syria, but identifying who is on which team is not straightforward.

So who backed Russia and who backed the United States?

According to President Vladimir Putin, the outcome was not a 50/50 split, but a balance of opinion in Russia's favour.

He claimed that, at the G20 dinner on Syria, only four countries - France, Turkey, Canada and Saudi Arabia (plus a British prime minister rebuffed by his own parliament) - had backed America.

Whereas siding with Russia in rejecting military strikes on Syria, he says, were seven nations: China, India, Indonesia, Argentina and Brazil, as well as South Africa and Italy.

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The statement was carefully crafted to omit the controversial crux of the American plan: punitive airstrikes on Syria, to be led by the US, quite possibly without UN backing”

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Yet not all the Russian president's views on Syria were endorsed by other G20 leaders.

Who else in St Petersburg publicly declared, as he did, that Syria's "so-called chemical weapons attack" was in fact "a provocation staged by rebels, in hope of winning extra backing from their foreign backers"?

In making that categorical claim, the Russian leader left little room for compromise and ended up looking, perhaps, somewhat isolated.

Shifting sands

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama also declared he had enjoyed support from a majority of G20 participants, who were "comfortable" with American claims.

Eleven countries did indeed endorse a joint statement circulated by the White House

  • to condemn the Syrian chemical weapons attack as a grave violation of the world's rules
  • to agree that the evidence pointed to Syrian government culpability
  • to call for a strong international response.
Syrian rebel (2 September 2013)

Alongside the US were, unsurprisingly, the two keenest cheerleaders when it comes to taking military action, French President Francois Hollande and Britain's David Cameron.

All other signatories were also longstanding US allies from around the world: Australia and Canada; from Asia, Japan and South Korea; from the Muslim world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia; and, from Europe, Spain and Italy. The last somehow got itself included in the tally on both sides of the divide.

But, tellingly, the list of Mr Obama's supporters did not include Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany (perhaps she thought it too risky so close to a federal election).

And the statement was carefully crafted to omit the controversial crux of the American plan: punitive airstrikes on Syria, to be led by the US, quite possibly without UN backing.

'Surrender monkey'

So it is not clear-cut who backs whom - but a muddle.

Two entrenched positions from the United States and Russia bookmark opposite ends of the spectrum, with lots of vague, shifting sands in-between.

President Francois Hollande at the G20 summit (6 Sept 2013) President Hollande said he would wait for the result of a UN investigation

Even the French president - no longer castigated, as was his predecessor in the Iraq days of 2003, as a "cheese-eating surrender monkey" and now embraced as America's new best friend - has begun hedging the conditions under which France would take part in strikes

  • only if they targeted Syrian military installations in order to avoid civilian casualties
  • only once UN inspectors had been given time to report back
  • and should the UN Security Council fail to give authorisation, then so long as a broad international coalition was gathered.

So perhaps the better question to ask when it comes to this row over Syria is: who got what they wanted from this summit, and who walked away empty-handed?

If President Putin's aim was to block US plans for building international support, then he must be feeling quite pleased with himself.

He did his job as a spoiler. And he was reinforced in his views by strong expressions of concern from other quarters.

Raising their voices to object to an American plan they fear would undermine UN authority and unleash more bloodshed through "ill-advised" military action were two powerful figures of global legal and moral authority - the UN Secretary General, and the Catholic Pontiff.

Pope Francis's intervention came in a letter he emailed from Rome to appeal to G20 leaders not to succumb to "futile" violence.

Wobbly mood

And there is little doubt that President Obama left St Petersburg looking somewhat weakened.

Far from winning new converts to his cause, he failed to broaden the international coalition of nations prepared to back military action.

At times he sounded defensive and distracted.

And now he faces an added problem - that the lack of enthusiasm for using force without UN approval shown by some leaders around the G20 table may adversely affect the already wobbly mood of the American public, and therefore the appetite in Congress for military action in Syria.

When asked how he thought the mood at G20 might affect the chances of congressional support for his plan next week, President Obama said it could cut both ways: it might put people off, but it might also make Americans more likely to rally round their president.

Perhaps he will win the endorsement of Congress.

Perhaps, in time, the United States and its allies will build the international coalition they seek.

But it is also possible that we will look back on this G20 gathering in the months to come and say - along with the vote rejecting military action in the British parliament - that this was the moment when the appetite for international intervention for humanitarians goals faltered, and this was the turning point which showed that the rest of the world no longer wants the United States to step in as the world's policeman when other institutions fail to act - however great the crisis or grave the atrocity.

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