Barking Up the Wrong Tree in St. Petersburg: G20 Hijacked by Syria Conflict

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

The world leaders gathered today in St. Petersburg for the G20 summit were supposed to discuss the slowdown of global economic growth and ways to combat tax evasion. This agenda has now been largely supplanted by developments in Syria and in particular the gung-ho attitude of the US administration that seems set on punishing the regime in Damascus for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

On the summit’s eve, President Vladimir Putin of Russia – never one to mince words – said he would consider sending the Syrians a missile shield to help protect the country from a US attack. Putin warned that Russia will not remain passive if international law is breached: “We would surely have to rethink our current position and perhaps offer to equip certain countries with sensitive technologies that afford them better protection against unwarranted attacks.”

Those “certain countries” Mr Putin referred to are widely understood to include Iran which earlier had shown interest in acquiring the Russian-made S300 air defence system. Under heavy pressure from the US and Israel, the deal was scrapped.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama remains confident that both houses of congress will eventually authorize some form of punishment to be meted out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A draft resolution approved on Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee allows strikes against Syria to take place within a 60 day window, extendable to 90 days. The draft also includes the tough words of hawkish US senator John McCain to the effect that US policy is to seek “a change of momentum on the battlefield of Syria.” Regime change just got another name.

“We would surely have to rethink our current position and perhaps offer to equip certain countries with sensitive technologies that afford them better protection against unwarranted attacks.”

– Vladimir Putin

Isolated internationally – but for the French who remain uncharacteristically belligerent on Syria – President Obama now hopes to find domestic support for his strike plan. In St. Petersburg, the Russian president tries to fill the gap. This unlikely champion of freedom and restraint – who just a few weeks ago welcomed US whistle blower Edward Snowden to Russia – appeals for military action to be put off until the United Nations have spoken on the matter. This may take a while. The analysis of soil samples taken last week by UN observers in Syria, may take up to three weeks.

Mr Putin reiterates on a daily basis his doubts about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons: “It is just ridiculous and defies logic. Why would the Syrian Army use chemical weapons on opponents they had surrounded and beat knowing full well the international outrage this would provoke? Nobody has been able to answer this question, nor has anyone offered solid proof that government forces have actually employed chemical weapons.”

Intelligence agencies ranging from Israel’s Mossad to Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst and Britain’s MI6 claim to possess the irrefutable proof Mr Putin is looking for. However, these spying agencies remain – as usual – woefully short on specifics and hence fail to convince anyone.

President Obama’s stubborn refusal to cool down and let the UN do its job seriously undermines the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The centrepiece of the event is a bold plan, drawn up by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), to combat tax evasion by forcing banks to disclose their customers’ assets at the request of governments.

The initiative was inspired by the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act which came into force earlier this year. Even though this legislation has been heavily criticised for the invasive powers it grants authorities, the G20 leaders were all expected to sign up for the plan.

However, in St. Petersburg the agenda for economic growth and the ambitious tax plan are both securely buried under the cacophony of sound bites, accusations and threats over the Syrian Issue. While the US Administrations vents its indignity and rolls around in self-righteousness, the wider world just tries to deal with more mundane questions regarding lacklustre economic growth, the continued degradation of the environment and the need for social ascendency of the poor masses; issues that when not addressed might actually cause real troubles that would pale whatever may have transpired in Syria with chemical weapons.

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