US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit. (AFP)
Strelna, Off St Petersburg, Sept. 6: The fireworks weren’t all celebratory. Under the canopy of spectacular starbursts that lit up the darkened skies last night, world leaders sat rigid and divided down the long table over Syria at the gilded Peterhof Palace.
Tableau artistes staged vivacious song and dance, but the tremors of war rumbled underfoot; an elaborate dinner lay served, but host and guests alike picked on differences rather than delicacies. The world was pushing patience and consensus, the United States remained unmoved of adopted aggression, saying it could barely wait to strike.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invited UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon to the lectern, the G20 assembly could foretell what was to come: a plea to await evidence on the use of chemical gas by the Bashar al-Assad regime, an appeal to build consensus. UN scientists, Ban Ki Moon said, would produce their conclusions on the Syrian gassing “within a matter of days”; the world should proceed with caution and consensus on the way ahead.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh added his own to voices of prudence, saying any action should be based on evidence and must proceed on the collective authority of the UN Security Council. India, he iterated, condemned the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, but underlined his riders in the extant case. “We need to be certain of what happened,” the Prime Minister said, “We need to wait and see what UN inspectors (who are currently analysing human tissue samples from the site of the sarin explosions) conclude.”
His position came clearly informed by the Iraq experience where US-led military intervention had proceeded without enough evidence in hand and led to no discoveries of weapons of mass destruction, the initial ruse for invading and then unseating Saddam Hussein.
Singh made it clear he stood across the fence from current US understanding and representation of the situation in Syria, and seemed to be spelling out strong reservations about what could unfold with US military action. “We are not in favour of regime change,” the Prime Minister pointedly said, “What happens should follow a UN consensus.”
But for the Americans, the case is already made, the evidence conclusive, the culprit identified — the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and that constitutes a security threat we cannot countenance. Defeated at home by anti-war sentiment in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister David Cameron continued to wave an individual flag for Washington. He regretted the Parliamentary rebuff to his push for military action and blamed his MPs for “failing to act against the gassing of children”.
Deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was briefly at the summit dinner, conveyed to journalists the Indian position and the UN secretary-general’s case, but declined any elaboration on differences saying he would rather not speak for other nations.
It was Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta who offered assured word that the G20 summit dinner had remained cold to consensus. “We have just finished dinner,” Letta said late last night, “And divisions on Syria were confirmed”.
Lateral voices filtering in to the summit halls seemed to point to opinion mounting against military action in Syria. Prominent among them was Pope Francis, who condemned the loss of lives and “world inaction” in the face of use of chemical weapons in Syria but held out against military strikes.
In a public letter to G20 leaders, the Pope said: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.… Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”
The BRICS nations and the European Union too have joined the anti-strike advocacy. Part of their concerns are guided by the adverse consequences of unilateral US militarism, part of it also stems from economic worries. A military strike, and its unpredictable spillover, could well push up global oil and gas prices and worsen the economic downturn.
But it remains moot if any of that will impact the US decision. There is little thus far in Strelna that would suggest the Americans have been moved to reconsider their stated determination to conduct disciplinary missile strikes. For all their sparkle, the fireworks over the Peterhof Palace, summer residence of the bygone czars, may have brought little cheer to the G20 table.