The G8 Summit started off with a lot of pessimism. Describing Russia’s position on Syria compared to the other members of the group, Harper described the G8 the “G7 plus one” and accused President Putin of supporting “thugs” in Damascus. Meanwhile, Putin and President Obama looked grim throughout the talks as the men failed to agree on how to end the crisis. The atmosphere was not cold – it was icy.
At the end of the summit however, Harper and British Minister David Cameron described final joint communiqué as a significant step forward. David Cameron, meanwhile, described the Syria statement as ‘very strong and purposeful’. Harper’s position throughout this conflict has been questionable. Harper went further: “We have a very different outcome here and a much better outcome than I thought we were going to have (…) So I think this was a very significant move on the part of Mr. Putin and the Russians.” He has refused to invoke the Responsibility to Protect but at the same time his statement before the G8 summit did little to open a constructive dialog between the West and Russia. But reading an article on the G8 summit, I was surprised by the optimism of Canadian Prime Minister Harper regarding decisions made on Syria at the eight world leaders. How can Prime Minister Harper speak of “a better outcome” considering no major decisions were taken?
The Americans were less enthusiastic – rightly so. There was no real shift from Russia – only Harper changed his perspective of Moscow. President Putin pretty much dominated the talks and refused to move.
Beyond calling for an end to the conflict, the final communiqué only gave general guidelines:
– Maximize diplomatic pressure to bring all sides to the table as soon as possible.
– Commitment “to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united inclusive and democratic Syria.” This includes finding “an agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent.”
– Preserve Syria’s public services, including security services and military forces.
– Syrian authorities and the opposition should commit to destroying all terrorist and extremist organizations.
– Increasing humanitarian aid.
The communiqué sounds as vague as David Cameron’s statement, which some commentators even described as “bland”.
1) No timetable was set for the Geneva peace conference (“We strongly endorse the decision to hold as soon as possible the Geneva conference on Syria” – what is soon?) and nothing is said about who will sit around the negotiating table. Once again the conference, which is supposed to design a political transition, is delayed due to disagreements on the nature and objectives of the peace talks.
2) There is no mention of President Al-Assad. Putin backs Assad while Western leaders want him gone and not part of any political settlement. Russia vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions that sought to push Assad out and fears that ousting Assad without a clear transition plan.
3) There is no explanation on who could be part of the transitional government. Could senior officials stay in power, as stated in the communiqué? There is no agreement on the nature and structure post-Assad cabinet.
4) The final communiqué do not mention arms shipment to rebel forces. France, Britain and recently the US announced that they are ready to arm rebels because they have evidence that the Syrian army used chemical weapons. Russia, who rejects these allegations, considers the Assad regime as “legitimate” and warned against arming rebels who use tactics that are against “humanitarian and cultural values” of Europe. (“The blood is on the hands of both parties – there is always a question as to who is to blame for that. One should hardly back those who kill their enemies and eat their organs.”). For Russia arming the rebels would destabilize the region, but arming the Assad regime will have the contrary effect. The “logic” seems to be that it is okay for the Assad regime to commit crimes but not for rebels. Speak of double standards.
Yes, arming the rebels is risky and there is space for half-hearted attempts. First, it may indeed escalate the conflict considering several countries are ready up-step their engagement with the rebels (USA, France, Britain, Turkey…) while others are supplying the Assad regime (Russia and Iran for example). Second, nobody knows where the weapons will ultimately end up, especially since Sunni extremists are playing an increasingly important role in the battle against Assad. The supply chain is complex and it will be difficult to keep track of the weapons. However, I am strongly against countries such as Russia arming what it considers as a “legitimate” government. A regime that kills its citizens has lost all forms of legitimacy in my eyes and certainly acts against the “humanitarian and cultural values” of Europe. President Putin’s (anti-Western) position is driven by his urge to show that Moscow can and wants to remain a strong player not only in Europe (Russia wants to preserve its naval presence in the Mediterranean) but also on the international scene. Syria is Russia’s main ally in the region and therefore an opportunity to limit U.S. influence in the Middle East. Considering his own way to rule, Putin is also against the idea of regime change – even when a regime kills its citizens. Russia’s (and Putin’s) stakes in this crisis are therefore serious – as are the West’s. But unlike the rest of the G8 members who remain vague on the nature of their involvement, Putin (just like Assad) not only knows exactly what he wants but also how he wants to achieve it.
So what can be done to convince Russia to cooperate with the West? I agree with Kyle Matthews and Zach Paikin that isolating Moscow is a bad move. I am also not sure about Human Rights Watch’s suggestion that the U.S. and Europe should refuse to enter new deals Russia’s arms trading company Rosoboronexport. I don’t think this strategy will work with the current regime considering its increasingly anti-western position. Because Russia showed its indispensability on the issue of Syria, making concessions on other issues important to Moscow may be the solution even if it is a hard one to swallow for Europe and the US. Russia must be convinced that it also in its national interest to play a constructive and positive role in the crisis.
The Syrian conflict exposes some of the G8’s main problems. Some of the world’s most important players are completely absent. There is little diversity and therefore less possibilities to explore alternative solutions to global problems such as this one. I am not sure what it would mean for Syria if countries such as China, India and Brazil were included but it would bring new perspectives and diversity to the table. For the 93,000 Syrians currently waiting in refugee camps, fruitless G8 meetings such as this one only increases their pessimism and isolation.