G20 Summit 2013: Russia and the U.S. Are Going to Get Nasty Over Syria

This year’s G20 Summit is only three days away and promises to be a tense one.

Although the official agenda has always been economic in nature, that hasn’t stopped the G20 Summit from becoming a forum for discussing other global issues. Because Russia has the G20 presidency this year, the summit will be held in St. Petersburg and it appears that both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama will use the forum to reiterate their cases on Syria.

Russia and the United States had a brief rapprochement during George W. Bush’s administration over their shared belief in the need to take a hard line on terrorism and domestic security. But in 2008 disputes over the purpose of missile interceptors planned for installation in Poland caused Moscow to threaten to retaliation by aiming nuclear missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic. The global economic crisis also soured relations, when Putin joined China in blaming the policies of Washington and the Federal Reserve. Finally the Russia-Georgian War of 2008 further damaged ties, with the U.S. considering scrapping a civilian nuclear co-operation pact while Putin accused the U.S. of instigating the conflict.

This backdrop matters because the G20 is one of the main crossroads of political and economic histories and current policies. The G20 and the statements made by its members also wield considerable influence as the organization’s twenty states make up nearly 90% of the global GDP, 80% of international trade, 66% of the world’s population and includes the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Moscow may no longer be the capital of the former U.S.S.R., but Russia is still a state which Washington cannot afford to ignore. Yet the question remains whether Obama will ignore Russia anyway if he gets the go-head for intervention from a Congress. What happens at the G20 Summit matters because it may influence Congress’ uncertain vote unless Obama calls an emergency session before they reconvene on September 9.

Unlike the G8 meeting in June when the rest of the countries were actively pursuing some action against Assad, Putin is no longer, as Obama put it, the “bored kid in the back of the classroom,” as momentum has shifted in his favor. It’s been two years since Obama said Assad’s regime had to go, about four months since calls were made to investigate the use of chemical weapons, and almost two weeks since Assad clearly crossed Obama’s arbitrarily drawn red line. Having taken this long to finally seriously consider military action, Obama has given the impression that not only is he in no hurry to punish or prevent Assad’s abhorrent use of chemical weapons but that he is only now considering action because he is under pressure do maintain his word. This has put Obama in an awkward position. Washington’s failure to move quickly and the possibility of not securing approval for a strike has made the U.S. look weak and Putin sees this. In fact, Putin made it clear to reporters he intends to push Obama on Syria at the Summit, having already mocked Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and foreign policy publicly.

Moscow has many reasons for not supporting Washington’s desire for military action against Assad. Russia’s insistence on respecting Syria’s sovereignty stems partly from Russia’s own historic insecurity and partly as a reaction to America’s hypocrisy and violation of other states’ national sovereignties, which are protected by the United Nations Charter. Unless it is in self-defense, intervention can occur only with authorization from the United Nations Security Council; otherwise it is illegal. While there are clear moral grounds for intervention, it would be very difficult to find legal ones, especially since Syria is one of the very few states that has not signed or acceded to the authority of the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty. The only way in which the United States has a domestically defensible national interest or self-defense claim would be if Iran is pushing Syria to test U.S. deterrence. Iran could be doing this to see if it would be safe to dramatically escalate its construction of a nuclear weapon.

Russia also has economic considerations and geopolitical concerns at stake, such as its arm sales of $5 billion to Syria and the naval base at Tartus. Moscow is keen to keep those sales after losing contracts of $4.5 billion to Libya and $13 billion to Iran due to Western intervention. Given the fact that Putin has sent two warships to the Mediterranean and has refused a Saudi offer of cheap oil and $15 billion in arms purchases for voting against Syria in the UNSC, Russia surely will not budge. With the West and its citizens wary of another military adventure, as indicated by the U.K.’s Parliament rejecting intervention, the advantage at the Summit rests with Putin.