G-20 Summit Sacrificed on the Altar of Syrian crisis

The G-20 Summit concluded on Sep 6 with little to show for its efforts. Leaders from over twenty countries met in St. Petersburg (Russia) for the annual meeting of the group, which includes in its membership the twenty largest economies of the world, a diverse group of countries, with little in common politically or economically.

The resounding failure of the summit was due in part to the leaders’ failure to agree on a course of action on Syria. The host, Russia, blocked every effort to gain momentum for the US call for action in Syria.

Although the summit’s original purpose was to discuss economic and trade issues, the focus was clearly on Syria. At the conclusion of the meeting, US President Barack Obama’s news conference focused almost entirely on Syria. Similarly, other G-20 leaders were bombarded with questions about the anticipated US-led strike in Syria.

At the economic level, the summit’s communique’, a 27-page document which made no reference to Syria, lacked specific and concrete action plans. Russia’s leadership was tested during the summit, but found wanting, it seems. Instead, Russian officials resorted to undiplomatic attacks against some of their guests. In one example, a Russian official spokesman slurred Britain as a ‘small island’ with no influence. He was commenting on UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s impassioned comments about the need for action in Syria.

But the verbose document was also lacking on specifics on economic issues. It lacked immediate or meaningful results.

Despite the persistent stagnation in the US and the Eurozone, and the prospects of developing countries following suit, the summit failed to address ways for economic recovery. About the only concrete agreement announced at the summit was an agreement to make efforts to combat tax evasion by multinational companies.

French President Hollande called it ‘perhaps the most important’ result of the St. Petersburg summit. G-20 representatives agreed to exchange data on tax collection by the end of 2015 and to take other steps to coordinate policies to stop multinational companies from tax evasion.

The tax issue is perhaps of some importance to some countries trying to increase their tax revenues, but hardly earth shattering. The question that has puzzled the experts watching the summit is as to why Russia has sabotaged the summit it was hosting, just to protect Assad? Why were the combative Russian hosts so bent on pushing their political agenda at this supposedly economic summit?

But perhaps Russian officials do not understand what the fuss is all about in Syria. In Russian calculus, politics is paramount and humanitarian considerations are secondary. There is great tolerance for high levels of violence that may not be tolerated elsewhere. There is probably nothing that the Syrian regime has done that Russia has not done in the past in dealing with its opponents.

What about Assad’s use of chemical weapons? Surely, Russia would find that objectionable? Not really! Russia has used gas in its war against Chechens.

 Take Chechnya for example. For the past five hundred years, Russia has been engaged in a fierce struggle to keep Chechnya under its control. It has perpetrated unspeakable atrocities to achieve that goal. During Tsarist rule of Chechnya, about 80 per cent of its population was deported and sent abroad. During the Soviet era, almost the entire remaining population of Chechnya was relocated to other parts of the Soviet empire.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has insisted on keeping Chechnya under its control, despite the fact that ethnic Chechens represent over 95 per cent of Chechnya’s population. The price? According to pro-Russian Chechen leaders, about 160,000 people have been killed since 1995. Russians have used their superior firepower to lay Chechen cities to waste.

What about Assad’s use of chemical weapons? Surely, Russia would find that objectionable? Not really! Russia has used gas in its war against Chechens. In one incident, Russia used gas in Moscow itself in dealing with the theatre hostage on Oct 23, 2002.

The massacre, also known as the 2002 Nord-Ost Siege, resulted from the seizure of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow by some 40-armed Chechens. They had taken 850 hostages and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the Chechen war. After a two-and-a-half-day siege, Russian forces pumped an unknown chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system and raided it.

During the raid, all the attackers were killed, and about 130 hostages died due to adverse reactions to the gas. The use of the gas was widely condemned as heavy-handed. Physicians in Moscow condemned the refusal to disclose the identity of the gas, which would have enabled them to save some lives.

Such high capacity to inflict and accept violence to achieve political or security goals explains to some degree why Russia is unable to condemn Assad. Even the regular use of militia by the Assad regime has very close parallels in the Russian system, where irregular militias are formed or tolerated to carry out the goals of the state.

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