G-8 and the shadow of Syria

By J Brooks Spector 18 June 2013

At one time, the annual Group of Eight (or G-8) meetings of the world’s major economies were like giant, protocol-laden conclaves of national leaders and aides who were really into discussions about exchange rate fluctuations, export promotion regimens and non-tariff barrier rules. This year’s version almost certainly promises to be a bit more controversial. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the G-8 now taking place in Northern Ireland.

The G-8 forum brings together eight of the world’s eleven wealthiest countries – currently still leaving out Brazil, India and China. This annual meeting traces back to its first version – a 1975 summit in France that included representatives from France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Later on the group added Canada, with the EU sitting in as a participating multinational body. Then, in 1997, Russia also joined, turning the annual gathering into the G-8. Also, another big gathering, the G-20 meeting, then, is a follow-on gathering to the G-8 that adds a dozen other hefty economies, primarily Asian, African and Latin American nations. (This year’s G-20 comes in early September in St. Petersburg, Russia.)

Historically, however, these G-8 meetings haven’t been quite as much fun as those annual APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings that bring together a dozen and a half of the biggest economies on the continents surrounding the Pacific Ocean. At those meetings, at least up until the last version in the US, all of the leaders have had to wear a different funny or embarrassing local-style shirt – or hat – for each yearly meeting. The G-8 has countered by having their meetings at particularly scenic or historic sites like ornate palaces or castles – especially whenever it has been the turn of a major European economy.

This year’s G-8 meeting at hotel in Enniskillen on the shoreline of Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland, began on Monday. There is a substantial economic and financial agenda and there are some pretty pressing international economic issues; the real fireworks will spin out of some substantial disagreement between Russia and the US (along with the UK and France) over the use of poison gas by the Syrian government against rebels in that country – and what that means for outside involvement in that civil war.

And, of course, hanging over this meeting are also some very embarrassing allegations the UK (in cooperation with the US) eavesdropped on the participants at the 2009 G-20 meeting that took place in London – including, ahem, setting up a bogus Internet café to make it even easier to tap into other people’s emails. As a result of all this, the Enniskillen meeting may not be the kind of international gathering that only a room full of econometricians could really love.

As the G-8 kicked off, Barack Obama was limbering up for his face-to-face with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has made it clear he and his government do not share Obama’s (and the British and French) views that the Syrian government has unleashed chemical weapons, and that as a result, the hard-pressed Syrian rebels should begin receiving Western military assistance. Meanwhile, expect that the G-8 meeting’s host, British Prime Minister David Cameron will try to be the peacemaker in pushing for internationally-organised negotiations on Syria.

About this, the BBC had written, as the summit was about to begin, that the Syrian questions “are so deep that they look set to overshadow this G8 summit in Northern Ireland unless, as Mr Cameron hopes, the discussion can focus on bolstering chances for some kind of renewed peace talks in Geneva. But that seems a vain hope.” Serving as the catalyst for such a meeting might be a tad awkward for Cameron, however, given that awkward fact of all that careful reading of the private views in emails of its international guests at the 2009 G-20 meeting.

Putting Syria aside for the moment, in the more usual run of topics for a G-8, Cameron has said the leaders joining the G-8 meetings should work towards agreement on a package of trade and tax reforms. Some of this has achieved a real degree of popular resonance in the UK, given the vigorous, creative exploitation of national tax rules by a variety of multinational corporations like Starbucks.

Specifically, Cameron told a media briefing as the meeting was about to begin that he also looked forward to formal agreement to begin negotiations on a comprehensive European-American free trade agreement, arguing that such a tariff-cutting agreement would boost employment and growth on both sides of the Atlantic. Or, as Cameron said, “This will be a summit that will drive growth and prosperity all over the world.” And referring to Northern Ireland as a place to inspire efforts to end conflict elsewhere, Cameron added, “Ten or 20 years ago, a G-8 in Fermanagh would have been unimaginable. But today Northern Ireland is a very different place… a symbol of hope to the world.”

And Barack Obama, working the same theme in events prior to the actual summit, told a Belfast audience of nearly 2,000 young people that Northern Ireland’s young generation should take the lead in building upon the 1998 US-brokered Good Friday peace accord. As part of his comments, Obama endorsed a new plan to tear down the so-called “peace lines” by 2023 – those security walls built to separate Protestant from Catholic areas, adding criticism of Northern Irish educational segregation by religion, describing this separation as part of the reason the communities remain divided.

As has become the norm for these meetings, in preparation for the onslaught of all those international heavy hitters, the British have established an all-enveloping blanket of security measures around the conference venue, designed to keep individual malefactors at bay and to prevent the usual crowd of hard-left protestors from disrupting things on Monday evening. However, the police commander of G-8 security, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, says he expects peace to reign when socialist and anti-globalisation protesters march Monday night from central Enniskillen to the fence around the venue itself. At this point, predictions are that only around 2,000 protestors would actually join in any anti-globalisation protest.

As things stand now, as the protesters try to do their thing and British police and military units try to prevent them, the G-8 leaders will be having their working dinner with their diet of particularly contentious foreign policy issues on the menu. Prior to the dinner, Obama and Vladimir Putin will have had their bilateral meeting. (At virtually all of these big, multilateral gatherings, the various leaders have bilateral meetings in addition to the larger group events.) This particular bilateral meeting – likely to be a careful but diplomatically acrimonious one – comes along just days after Obama had finally decided the US would begin shipments of arms to the rebel groups fighting to oust Bashar al-Assad as Syrian president.

While the vast destruction, the many casualties, and the refugees from the fighting had not meant Syria had crossed the line, deploying nerve toxins, even in relatively small amounts, so contravened international norms that no other response was appropriate, said the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the Obama White House was careful to be just a little bit pregnant on this issue. As Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said on one of the Sunday TV news talk shows in the US, “We have to be very discerning about what’s in our interest and what outcome is best for us and the prices we’re willing to pay to get to that place. We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past; we’re not going to do it here. One of the reasons we’re doing the extensive efforts that we have done in terms of understanding who the opposition is is to make sure we can coordinate with our friends and our allies”.

After the announcement, the Economist observed, “On June 13th the White House announced it would give ‘military aid’ to Syrian rebels for the first time in their 27-month battle against President Bashar Assad. American officials did not specify what exactly that would entail, but sources told the Associated Press and the New York Times it would include light arms and CIA training on how to use them—and possibly anti-tank but not anti-aircraft missiles. The aid will be sent to the Supreme Military Command, headed by Selim Idriss, a defected Syrian army general whose networks America has been testing with food and other non-lethal aid.

The rebels have been pleading for months, in increasingly urgent terms, for the US and other western nations to supply them with military equipment including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help even the odds in their struggle against Assad’s forces and allies. In fact, the rebels have been losing ground against government forces, most recently being driven out of their strategic enclave surrounding the town of Qusayr near Lebanon – and now even being threatened with the loss of their hold on much of Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub.

Beyond the criticism he will undoubtedly receive from Vladimir Putin now that the US has decided to arm the rebels, Obama had been under fire within the US from many directions. Many senior politicians from both parties have been calling for aid to the rebels. This has been in spite of the fact most current polls in the US point to very low rates of support – under 15% for arms shipments to the rebels, let alone similar numbers for US military participation in a no-fly zone over Syria that would necessarily only affect the government’s forces since the rebels don’t have an air force.

On the one hand, Republican neoconservative critics like Arizona Senator John McCain have been chastising him for months for failing to support the overthrow of yet another Middle Eastern dictator traducing human and civil rights, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians, and driving many more into exile. Their argument, essentially, is that the rebels may not be perfect democrats, but the longer the war goes on, the less likely it is for a better government to emerge that would have any chance at all. Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio (a possible contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2016) says he would have taken action in Syria well before now and that, if he were president, “we never would have gotten to this point” in the first place. Meanwhile, attacking from an entirely different position, isolationist Republicans like Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator and another possible presidential candidate in 2016, has argued that aiding any side draws the US into needless participation in a fruitless mission. Paul said, “I’m very worried about getting involved in a new war in Syria,” because while Assad is “a bad guy,” there is also al-Qaeda and al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda linked Islamist group) on the opposite side. He went on to argue, “They say ‘there are some pro-Western people, and we’re going to vet them,’ well apparently we had a senator over there who had his picture taken with some kidnappers, so I don’t know how good a job we’re doing vetting those who are going to get the arms”.

Democratic critics, on the other hand, have been at him from a humanitarian perspective, as with New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committees, commented on another one of those Sunday talk shows, “The reality is we need to tip the scales, not simply to nudge them.”

The Washington Post even editorialised, “President Obama has at last decided to deliver military support to Syria’s rebels, though the quantity and quality of any U.S. arms deliveries remain to be seen. It’s a move that, if made 18 months ago, might have decisively tilted the civil war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and prevented the emergence of the extremist forces linked with al-Qaeda that are now active around the country. As it is, the action may be too small and come too late to achieve Mr. Obama’s stated goal of removing Mr. Assad from power.”

And – surprisingly – former president Bill Clinton has also chipped in, criticising Obama from the perspective and values of traditional Democratic internationalism. As the usually supportive New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Not only is President Obama leading from behind, now he’s leading from behind Bill Clinton. After dithering for two years over what to do about the slaughter in Syria, the president was finally shoved into action by the past and perhaps future occupant of his bedroom. Clinton told John McCain during a private Q. and A. on Tuesday in New York that Obama should be more forceful on Syria and should not rationalise with opinion polls that reflect Americans’ reluctance to tangle in foreign crises. McCain has been banging the gong on a no-fly zone in Syria for some time.”

Boxed about in this way, the Obama White House seemed to be waiting for a smoking gun. And so, when the confirmation of Sarin gas use came from French and British sources, President Obama was able to say Assad had finally crossed the line. No more Mr Nice Guy.

The difficulty for the White House, however, is that these arms shipments will not – at least in the amounts apparently contemplated – include anti-aircraft weaponry or tip the balance of power. Some analysts argue it is already too late in the day for the rebels to win; it may also be too late for them to battle to a stalemate; and it may even be too late to prevent a grinding, horrific, but final victory by the government’s forces – regardless of the ultimate cost to the population.

As things stand now, there are the on-going weapons flows to the Syrian government from Iran and those Hezbollah fighters coming in from around the region, allying themselves with Syrian government forces in support of a fellow Shia style Islamic community – along with the backing of Russia in international forums and with weapons support. Now, however, this is about to be somewhat more evenly balanced by the addition of US military aid to complement all the on-going support to the rebels from various Sunni dominated states in the region such as Saudi Arabia.

Standing just beyond all this – at least at this point – are Turkey, Jordan and Israel, watching warily to see if the actual fighting inside Syria eventually spills across the country’s borders – or generates massive, further flows of refugees that can destabilise neighbouring governments.

Balancing things somewhat, perhaps, however, may just be the effect of last week’s Iranian presidential election. The surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani with his moderate views, may be interpreted in the West as evidence his victory can lead to a new dialogue to ease tensions over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. While its support for Assad is not the same thing at all, there may also be some chances in that regard, down the road as well. Rather than expressing strong support for Assad, in his public comments so far, Rowhani sidestepped the issue of Iran’s alliance with Assad, indicating instead that efforts to end the civil war and restore stability rest with the “Syrian people.”

Still, as David Gardner, writing in the Financial Times last week, argued, “President Barack Obama’s decision to send unspecified ‘direct military support’ to Syria’s rebels may have as its proximate cause the now firm US conviction that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against them. But it will be seen across the Middle East as a choice by America to throw its weight behind a Sunni alliance against Iran-led Shia forces across the region – a conflict in which Syria is the frontline.”

In sum, however, the fighting in Syria seems destined to continue for many months more, especially as the rebels will be able to present a slightly more equal footing militarily than they have been able to achieve previously. The really tough challenges will be to find ways to get all the parties to step back from the real chaos of a wider war and find a path by which something other than even more destructive, all-out fighting will consume Syria, pit Sunni and Shia communities throughout the region at each other even further than at present, drag Turkey, Jordan and Israel into the fighting — and eventually pit the US and Russia against each other directly in the cauldron that is becoming Syria’s current torment and future undoing. DM

Read more:

  • UK’s Cameron rallies world leaders to Ireland at the AP
  • White House: No rush to war in Syria in Politico
  • Rubio says Obama ‘failed’ on Syria in Politico
  • Need to ‘tip the scales’ in Syria, Menendez says in Politico
  • Bill Schools Barry on Syria in the New York Times (Maureen Dowd’s column)
  • Syria’s civil war – The regime digs in – President Bashar Assad and his forces have won a new lease of life in the Economist
  • America and Syria – A change of tack? in the Economist
  • GOP to Obama on Syria: Where you been? In Politico
  • Rand Paul takes shot at John McCain over Syria trip at the Washington Post
  • G8 summit: Barack Obama arrives in Northern Ireland at the BBC
  • G8 Northern Ireland summit: Syria set to top agenda at the BBC
  • Lines Blur in U.S.-Europe Debate on Austerity at the New York Times
  • GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians’ communications at G20 summits at the Guardian
  • European Commission President Criticises Opposition to Globalisation at the New York Times
  • Syrian intervention – Overlearned lessons from Bill Clinton at the Economist
  • A schism in Islam is ripping the Middle East apart in the Financial Times
  • U.S. intervention in Syria must be robust, in the Washington Post
  • A Syrian no-fly zone is the moral and strategic thing to do at the Washington Post
  • Defector Syrian general will be conduit for U.S. military aid to rebels at the Washington Post.

Photo: Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (C) chairs a trade summit as he sits with U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R), at the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/pool


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