G20 Summit

The Russian grandmaster

Print edition : October 04, 2013

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the G20 summit on September 6 in St. Petersburg. Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

E.U. officials Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso address the media ahead of the G20 summit. Photo: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP

French President Francois Hollande was the only E.U. leader ready to join a U.S. attack on Syria. Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, urged Moscow to stop supporting Damascus. Photo: RON EDMONDS/AP

A protest outside the summit venue on September 5. Photo: PETER KOVALEV/AFP

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) at a meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria, chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, on the margins of the G20 summit. Photo: AFP PHOTO / UNITED NATIONS / ESKINDER DEBEBE

Vladimir Putin ensured that the G20 summit delivered a stinging blow to the U.S. President who pushed for a “punitive” strike against Syria and left him with little room for manoeuvre.

Whatever else the Syrian crisis may be, it has certainly become a chess match between the United States and Russia and, above all, between their leaders, in diplomatic skills, strategic foresight and political will.

For some time after violence swept Syria two years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to be getting the upper hand in this match. He had persuaded the then President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, not to veto United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 on a no-fly zone in Libya, and was on his way to getting Moscow on board over Syria.

In Libya, Russia for the first time appeared to subscribe to the U.S. concept of humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, which it had staunchly opposed in the past. Medvedev justified Russia’s refusal to veto Resolution 1973 citing the “abhorrent behaviour” of the Muammar Qaddafi regime, which “committed crimes against its own people”.

With the regime of Qaddafi doomed and the armed opposition in Syria rapidly gaining ground against government forces, Medvedev appeared ready to dump Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well.

In August 2011, Russia backed a Security Council statement on Syria condemning “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities”, and Medvedev issued a stark warning to the Syrian leader to “reconcile with the opposition” or face the consequences.

“Should he fail to do that, he is in for a grim fate,” Medvedev said, adding ominously in apparent reference to Libya:

“And we will eventually have to take some decisions on Syria, too.”

Washington applauded Medvedev’s stand, with Obama heartily thanking “my friend Dmitry” for “constructive engagement with the United States”, when they met in Honolulu in November 2011.

However, Obama’s fortunes began to wane after Vladimir Putin replaced Medvedev at the chessboard, reclaiming the Russian presidency he had yielded to Medvedev in 2008.

Russia stepped up arms supplies to Syria, firmly blocked all U.S. attempts to censure Damascus in the Security Council, and launched a diplomatic offensive for a negotiated settlement of the crisis.

Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis evolved exactly as Russia had predicted, with Islamists linked to Al Qaeda increasingly swelling opposition ranks and turning Syria into a jehadist haven. Obama kept vacillating between going for all-out military aid to the rebels to topple Assad at the risk of an Islamist takeover of Syria and embracing the Russian proposal to try and bring the warring sides to the negotiating table.

Moscow and Washington convened a Geneva-I peace conference last year and agreed earlier this year to push for a Geneva-II follow-up. But Obama developed cold feet to the idea of talks when Putin rejected his precondition that Assad must step down. Following several reports of chemical weapons attacks blamed on the Syrian government, Obama in June swung back in favour of secret operations in Syria to engineer “regime change”, directing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to train and supply arms to “moderate” opposition. The alleged nerve gas attack on August 21 that reportedly killed hundreds of people forced Obama to act on his threat to punish President Assad if he crossed the “red line” of using his chemical weapons.

Moscow’s firm stand

In contrast to U.S. vacillations, Moscow has firmly stuck to its line throughout the crisis: in Syria, Russia defends not Assad and his regime but international law and the supremacy of the U.N.; foreign intervention will pour oil onto the fire of war in Syria; forceful removal of the Syrian leader will destabilise entire West Asia and pose a threat of terrorist spillover to Russia’s North Caucasus.

Move by move, grandmaster Putin manoeuvred his pieces for positional advantage on the Syrian chessboard towards achieving his ultimate goal—stop the carnage and set rolling the ball of political settlement and peaceful transition through give and take between the government and the opposition.

The Syria game had some delicious moments, such as a secret visit to Moscow by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan on July 31. Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief offered Putin a deal: Moscow should stop its support for Damascus and Riyadh would reward it by keeping oil prices high, safeguarding Russia’s gas exports to Europe, and buying billions worth of Russian weapons.

Putin had no intention of cutting deals with Prince Bandar, called by the media “CIA’s man in Riyadh”, but now he knew what Saudi and U.S. secret services were up to. An old KGB hand, Putin did not miss Prince Bandar’s veiled threats when he offered to “protect” the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia against Chechen rebels and warned that there would be “no escape from the military option” if Moscow did not dump Assad. Therefore, reports that Saudi Arabia was behind the August 21 chemical attack did not come as a surprise to Putin.

Putin artfully exploited the weaknesses in Obama’s case for war in order to drum up international opposition to a unilateral U.S. strike on Syria. He rubbished as “utter nonsense” Obama’s claim that the Syrian government had resorted to chemical attacks at a time when the tide of war was swinging its way. The Russian leader held the opposition responsible for staging such “provocations” in order to get help from their Western backers. Any outside intervention in Syria must be approved by the U.N., he said, otherwise it would be “aggression”.

The Russian report

In a smart move that exposed the U.S.’ hollow claims about chemical weapons in Syria, Russia prepared for the U.N. its own comprehensive scientific study into the March 19 attack near Aleppo. The Russian report contained all the essential details that the U.S. report on the August 21 attack lacked: how the samples were collected, where they were analysed and what the analysis showed.

A summary of the Russian report released by the Foreign Ministry said the shell fired at Khan al Asal “was not regular Syrian army munitions but was an artisan-type similar to unguided rocket projectiles produced in the north of Syria by the so-called gang ‘Bashair An-Nasr’”, and that the sarin found in the soil and shell samples “was not synthesised in an industrial environment”.

Putin pushed Obama against the wall, challenging him to back his claims of the Syrian government’s hand in poison gas attacks with equally hard evidence.

“Saying that they have such evidence but it is classified and they cannot show it to anyone does not stand up to criticism,” Putin said. “If there is evidence, it must be presented. If they don’t show it, that means there is none,” he added, drawing parallels with the fake “anthrax” vial Secretary of State Colin Powell demonstrated in the U.N. General Assembly to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Coalition of the unwilling

As Obama wobbled and turned to Congress for authorising a military strike against Syria, Putin used the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on September 5-6 to build a “coalition of the unwilling” opposed to the U.S. plans.

Even though Syria was on the summit agenda, the Russian leader succeeded in arranging a closed-door, three-hour debate on the Syrian crisis at an official dinner where the leaders of India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina, South Africa, and even North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member Italy joined Russia in arguing against military action unauthorised by the U.N.

Putin said he was particularly impressed by the “unexpectedly” strong stand Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took against a unilateral strike.

Addressing the G20 leaders at the dinner, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that any decision on Syria “should be taken within the framework of the U.N. Charter, as a matter of principle”. “There is no military solution,” the U.N. chief emphasised.

Pope Francis sent an open letter to Putin as the G20 host, urging world leaders “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution” and commit themselves to “a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties”.

The BBC said Putin’s G20 summit may well be remembered as “the moment when the appetite for international intervention for humanitarian goals faltered” and “the turning point which showed that the rest of the world no longer wants the United States to step in as the world’s policeman...”.

Even America’s closest allies turned away from it. The British Parliament blocked Prime Minister David Cameron’s initiative to join a U.S. military assault. The European Union warned against a unilateral military operation in Syria, with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso calling for joint international efforts via the U.N.

Germany has ruled out joining any military strike against Syria, while French President Francois Hollande, the only E.U. leader ready to join a U.S. attack on Syria, faced a barrage of criticism at home.

Outplayed by Putin

Putin convincingly outplayed Obama. The G20 summit delivered a stinging blow to the U.S. President in his push for a “punitive” strike against Syria, leaving him with little room for manoeuvre: if he went for a unilateral strike he would shatter his international reputation; if he backed away, he would lose face at home.

With Obama looking confused and isolated in St. Petersburg, Putin delivered a masterly coup de grace. As the G20 summit drew to a close, Putin, looking friendly and relaxed, pulled Obama aside for a 20-minute talk, as if there were no refusal by Obama to have a one-to-one in St. Petersburg and no cancellation of a bilateral summit in Moscow after Russia granted asylum to the U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The Russian leader made Obama a game-changing proposal: Moscow would persuade Damascus to place its stocks of chemical weapons under international control and the U.S. would drop its plans of a military strike.

It was a proposal Obama could not refuse. It would allow the U.S. leader to get out of the corner where he had driven himself with his “red lines” without losing face. Putin graciously agreed to call it a draw even as he advanced closer to winning the match.

But the Russia-U.S. chess battle in Syria also has broader geopolitical implications. “Syria is not about U.S.-Russia competition in the Middle East [West Asia], but about disagreement over the world order,” said analyst Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

The Syria crisis will show which way international relations will evolve in the 21st century—towards a new Pax Americana with its self-arrogated right of intervention and regime change or towards a world of the United Nations governed by law.

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