Summit in the Shadow of Syria

It's Russia against the West when it comes to what to do about Syria. And that division could overshadow the entire G8 summit says Jennifer Welsh.
By: /
June 17, 2013
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

Over the years, G8 Summits have become important symbolic moments for demonstrating the solidarity of leading industrialized countries in addressing not only economic issues, but also political and military ones. The annual meeting also offers the host country an opportunity to galvanize the support of G8 members to advance initiatives of particular concern. And so it was at the 2005 Gleneagles Summit that then U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair drew on the backing of his peers to denounce terrorism in the wake of the London bombings, and to champion aid to Africa.

The agenda for this year’s summit is packed with issues close to the heart of the David Cameron, Britain’s current prime minister, such as tackling tax avoidance and managing the fallout of the ongoing economic malaise in the eurozone. But one issue not part of the formal agenda – the conflict in Syria – threatens to overshadow all of the goodwill and camaraderie.

The Russians, simply put, are not willing to ‘smile’ for the cameras on this one. In fact, they are doing just the opposite – making brutally clear their opposition to recent moves by western states to begin arming the Syrian rebels. So, while David Cameron tried to reassure British journalists after his meeting yesterday with President Putin that common ground could be found between western capitals and Moscow on how to address the crisis, it was hard to see where. In an icy exchange at the joint press conference with Cameron, Putin’s words were far from diplomatic:

You will not deny that one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras. Are these the people you want to support? Is it them who you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to humanitarian values that have been preached in Europe for hundreds of years.

When Russia joined the G7 in 1997 – making it the G8 – it was at a time when the world’s most powerful countries had emerged from the Cold War and were invested in working collectively to tackle global challenges. Gone were the days, it seemed, when the USSR and western states faced off against one another in institutions such as the UN, or – even worse – when the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in proxy wars in regions such as the horn of Africa or the Middle East. 

Today’s summit has a very different feel. There is stark division among G8 participants over the right way forward in Syria, even if they seem to agree that a political solution is the ultimate goal. It is not quite a proxy war – despite the alarmist commentaries, the U.S./France/U.K. and Russia are not trying to fight each other indirectly (which is what a proxy war is). However, they are backing different sides in the Syrian conflict and have different conceptions of who should be in charge. So, while Russia and the West are still roughly in the same G8 ‘tent’ (this isn’t yet a new Cold War), the tent has some serious holes that may not withstand the current storm.

President Putin insists that there is nothing illegal about his government’s material support for the ‘legitimate government of Syria’. And technically he is right – even if the increased Russian aid (including, most recently, anti-aircraft missiles) may not be politically helpful. Western countries, by contrast, cannot be so confident that the provision of ‘lethal assistance’ to the rebels and a lifting of the arms embargo are consistent with international law.

In fact, the starting point in international law is that the provision of arms by one state to an armed opposition group fighting against another state is a breach of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, and of the principle prohibiting intervention by states in the internal affairs of other states. International law does provide a right to support opposition groups (including through arms) in cases of self-defence, but the bar for establishing that right has been set rather high. As a result, states that have provided arms to rebel groups have done so covertly, without arguing that their conduct is legal. It is no surprise, therefore, that the U.S. decision to arm the rebels (announced last week) will be operationalized through CIA deliveries via clandestine bases in Turkey and Jordan.

Western countries might rightly resent Putin’s remarks as coming from someone whose own policy leaves much to be desired. But the question raised by Putin deserves an answer. Beyond issues of legality, is it really wise to be supplying (more) arms to the rebels? (I use the word “more”, given that the New York Times has reported that the Syrian opposition has already received, since the beginning of 2012, possibly as much as 3,500 tons of weapons.)

Both U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague and Obama’s deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes insist that the West knows a lot more about the Syrian opposition today than it did a year ago. They maintain that there is better knowledge about capabilities and intentions, and a strategy for ensuring that lethal aid gets into the ‘right hands’. Moreover, neither country has yet stepped up to deliver the kinds of weapons the rebels really want – especially anti-aircraft missiles. Indeed, the U.S. administration has been extremely cagey about exactly what kind of hardware it is intending to send.

But these attempts to mollify domestic criticism about the possibility of arming extremists are overly optimistic. Arms will circulate and be traded. Inconveniently, the Guardian newspaper has recently published a story suggesting that Sunni jihadist groups in Northern Syria have secured a large supply of exactly the type of missiles that the Obama Administration says that it wants to keep out of rebel hands for now (shoulder-launched SA-16s). As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested last Friday, it is hard to see how more arms can help the plight of Syrian civilians.

In addition, there is a problematic imbalance in the level of commitment being offered. The rebels can now say that they have more western support, but it comes with caveats, concerns – and the ever-present possibility of withdrawal. Assad, by contrast, has steadfast support from the likes of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia.

It is the last fact that makes the whole stated logic behind the supposedly ‘big’ change in western policy so problematic. The U.K., France, and the U.S. have argued that by lifting the embargo and arming the rebels, pressure will be put onto Assad to come to the negotiating table. But is this likely? We don’t know yet, of course, but signs so far suggest that when the rebels make gains, Assad’s backers come in with more and more guns to bolster the government’s position – thereby increasing his confidence and lessening the incentive to engage in diplomacy.

The G8 discussions in Northern Island this week won’t solve this ongoing tragedy. The most likely outcome will be a short statement supporting the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to bring representatives of the Syrian government and opposition together to initiate a new peace process. If they are successful, then it will be time for both sides to soften the rhetoric, roll up their sleeves, and engage in the hard work required to get a political solution.