Deep Divisions on Syria Revealed at St.Petersburg G20 Summit

Wen Ren

While the main agenda established for the G20 Leaders’ Summit was centered on global economic and financial issues, the security/political conflict in Syria absorbed the Leaders’ attention at the G20 St. Petersburg Summit. Journalists representing media organizations from all over the world were scrutinizing leaders’ words related to Syria in order to identify the stances of different countries and regions on the evolving crisis. Leaders were, and remain, divided into camps over the use of military action to punish the Syrian leadership for the use of chemical weapons. Syria was on everyone’s mind at this G20.


Key Questions

On the issue of Syria, the media was focused on the critical disconnect amongst the G20 Leaders. Leaders divided over whether there was convincing evidence indicating that President Assad or other government officials were responsible for using chemical weapons in the attack on the Damascus suburbs on August 21st. Leaders were also at an impasse over what action should be undertaken in Syria if it was accepted that the Assad government was responsible. Additionally, a question was raised regarding whether governments could only take action following a resolution to do so from the UN Security Council.


Opposing Views

US President Barack Obama accused the Assad regime of killing 1,429 people with chemical weapons in the attack on the Damascus suburb on August 21st. The US government claimed that the evidence of Assad’s complicity was convincing. US President Obama called on the US Congress to authorize military action in Syria and urged the world to react to Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack on his own people. Obama said that Assad had crossed a “red line” in using chemical weapons and, according to Obama, the “world cannot stay idly by.” He called for a military response and made it clear that he was determined to act even without UN approval.

On September 5th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorized President Obama to take military action against Syria, (though the vote was a rather close: 10 to 7) which is the first formal step toward congressional approval. The final Senate vote is expected to happen in the week following the Summit. The final Committee resolution remained indecisive; the Committee measure would bar ground troops for combat and set a time limit of 60 days for action. The President was also authorized to extend that limit by 30 days with congressional approval.

The host of Summit this year, Russia, has consistently stood firmly with the Assad government and against military action without Security Council (UNSC) approval. In an interview ahead of the Summit, Russia President Vladimir Putin insisted that no convincing evidence of the use of chemical substances had been presented, and UN approval was needed before taking any military action against Syria.

Russian President Putin did not totally rule out military action if convincing evidence could be found. But he warned that the use of military force against Syria without UN approval “can only be interpreted as an aggression” (Associated Press Interview 2013).

Putin also dismissed the speculation of a damaged personal relationship with President Obama, although Obama had cancelled a planned bilateral meeting with President Putin. The two did meet for some twenty minutes during the first evening, although positions remained unchanged.


Other G20 Leaders’ positions before Summit

China has sided with Russia on the issue of Syria. However, in the formal bilateral meeting between Putin and China President Xi Jinping, they refrained from talking about the Syria issue.

Some leaders have been more vocal. In a press briefing at the G20, the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, digressed to discuss the Syria issue in his remarks. He urged the UN Security Council to unite in its effort to prevent any further chemical attacks, and emphasized that “…there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed….” Rompuy also called for an initiative for a “Geneva II” peace conference to achieve a political settlement between the warring factions.

At the commencement of the Summit, only the US and France publicly had committed to using military action in Syria; the British House of Commons had refused to authorize the use of the military to support any US action. Turkey is known for being supportive of US intervention, and Saudi Arabia is active in backing Syria rebels. On the other hand, South Africa, Argentina, and Italy have openly spoken or expressed an opinion against military action without UN approval.


US President Obama’s effort at St. Petersburg

President Obama sought international support from Leaders at the G20 to back military action. After the dinner on the first evening (Thursday, September 5th) of the Summit, divisions among countries were revealed and confirmed. According to US President Obama, on Friday (September 6th), the discussion was unanimous that chemical weapons were used, and a majority in the room was comfortable with the conclusion that the Assad government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. He admitted that that view was disputed by Russian President Putin. But he later described his private conversation with Putin as “candid and constructive.”

President Obama also criticized the UNSC’s paralysis on the issue. He argued that if the international community is serious about upholding this longstanding ban on the use of chemical weapons, a response must come. He also said that the UNSC should not be used as a barrier against breaking international norms and laws.

Russian President Putin, in his concluding Press Conference, said that leaders were split 50-50 on military action. In a joint statement, Syria, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and UK expressed their support for United States (White House 2013). President Putin meanwhile mentioned that Indonesia, India, Argentina, Brazil, China, and South Africa were with Russia. Putin reiterated his conditions for the possible use of force: self-defense or UNSC approval under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Putin further told the media about South Africa’s concern that small countries will not feel secure if a superpower country like the US feels it is able to carry out military action against a sovereign country without international approval.


Implications of Syria Crisis

In a briefing meeting on Chinese financial and economic policy on September 4th, China Vice-Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao addressed journalists’ questions on Syria from an economic perspective by mentioning that if the issue is not properly resolved, the Syrian conflict could result in an increase of oil prices. Quoting from IMF data, Zhu indicated that a $10 increase in oil prices could slow global economy growth by 0.25%. Without consideration of the Syrian conflict, the IMF has already lowered its 2013 global economic growth to 3.1%.

Geopolitically, conflict in Syria has significant implications for Middle East security. The unrest in Syria could spill over to neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey and, more ominously, Israel. Additionally, the Assad regime is a strong ally with Iran — a long-time enemy of US. A strike on Syria has a significant meaning for the US’s Middle East strategies and interests.



During the two days at St. Petersburg, the Leaders carried out a heated debate on Syria. Opposing views amongst different countries were on display. Leaders evidently are far from reaching a consensus regarding the interpretation of the facts and the appropriate solution. Divisions were not likely to be solved at this venue, and were not. And unfortunately, the attention of Leaders was taken from the agenda set by the G20 Sherpas and the continuing issues of the global economy.


Share this Post