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The Syrian Shock to the St. Petersburg G20 Summit

John Kirton, Co-director, G20 Research Group
September 5, 2013

The large-scale use of deadly chemical weapons in Syria on August 21, 2013, and the credible threat by the United States of a military response have brought this acute political security shock into the St. Petersburg Summit in a significant way. Most observers have concluded that Syria will sideswipe the summit, disrupting and damaging its important economic agenda, as host Vladimir Putin of Russia and Barack Obama of the United States square off in a frosty dispute, reminiscent of the long-gone Cold War. While some initially thought that this issue only would be discussed in corridor conversations, it is now clear that it could not be dealt with in such a limited way. It is becoming more likely that the shock from Syria could strengthen the G20 as a flexible, fast-responding crisis manager in ways that broaden its agenda to embrace and integrate key political security issues in the world.

Putin has stated that the G20 is an appropriate forum to discuss the Syria issue. To do so in a way that does not disrupt the prepared economic program, he has invited the G20 foreign ministers to St. Petersburg at the time of the summit. It now seems likely that a majority of G20 foreign ministers will attend. In taking this approach, Putin followed the precedent sent last year by Mexico, when the first gathering of G20 foreign ministers took place in the lead-up to the summit.

In addition to the foreign ministers' discussions and the corridor conversations at St. Petersburg, Syria could arise several times at the G20 summit table itself. It is functionally linked to several G20 issues. The first is terrorism, given that the G20 has long dealt with terrorist finance, and because terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda and Hezbollah are centrally involved in Syria's civil war. The second is energy price volatility, where the prospect of U.S.-led military action in Syria, combined with earlier political violence in Egypt, is having an impact on world oil and gas, causing prices to rise. The third is prospects for global growth, where the potential for a broader conflict throughout the Middle East and the use of chemical weapons by terrorists elsewhere could have a negative effect on economic growth and stability. It is also possible that G20 leaders will wish to address the spiralling humanitarian crisis in Syria, with its two million refugees and more than 100,000 dead, just as it did in responding to the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010. Because the G20 contains all five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with veto powers and the two key regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey — which is a NATO member and afront-line state — its membership is well matched to deal with the new shock from Syria and the complex uncertainty, and any contagious global effects it could have.

One possible outcome is for G20 foreign ministers to produce and G20 leaders to endorse a general condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by anyone anywhere, a call for a diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria through the prospective Geneva II conference and stronger measures against terrorist finance. They may also take note of the negative impact of the Syrian crisis on global economic growth, and the human suffering within and around Syria itself. They might even pledge to offer economic support to a post-Geneva Syria, where a transitional government would have full executive authority, as Russia and and its fellow G8 members agreed to do at the Lough Erne Summit last June.

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