5 Sep 2013

G20 discord on Syria guaranteed

Just about to take off on the PM’s plane bound for St Petersburg and the G20 summit.

World leaders may be reminded of the war-time poster: “Is your journey really necessary?”

Ostensibly, this meeting is all about world economic recovery but Syria is at the front of most minds and there is scant agreement on what to do.


The host, President Vladimir Putin, has signalled he might retaliate to any US action in Syria by sending a missile shield to Iran, though senior Whitehall sources are convinced Putin would not over-react with anything that resembled a “shooting match”.

David Cameron spent quite a bit of time at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this summer chasing Putin round the table trying to get him to make concessions on Syria.

He even said in his closing remarks at that summit that it was clear Putin was not wedded to Assad personally and just wanted Russia’s interests (primarily Mediterranean port) in Syria protected. But there was no movement on Syria by Putin then and there must be no chance of any when the Russian President hosts on home terrain and with a US missile attack on Syria pending.

It might not have been quite like this. I understand that when President Barack Obama phoned David Cameron on his hols in Cornwall on Saturday 24 August to talk military action he had Monday 26 August in mind for the attack.

Quite what British cooperation would’ve looked like in those circumstances is not clear but it will be an historical “what if?” forever as to whether Congress and parliament would’ve been more squeamish about withholding support for something that had already happened rather than being asked to sanction attacks in advance.

Anyway, that was not to be. That early considered attack was cancelled before the second scheduled date – Saturday 31st August – was itself cancelled too.

Senior British sources are left guessing quite why President Obama decided to wait for a congressional endorsement before attacking Syria.

President Obama said at his Stockholm press conference yesterday that the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey had more or less suggested delay and insisted it wouldn’t impact on the effectiveness of military strikes.

One of the golden rules of “op sec” or operational security is that the longer you compromise targets when you publicise them so you have to wonder if delay really was the military’s most cherished option.

Is Obama’s military plan mutating into something bigger and focused on regime change or is that candy-flossing for the benefit of hard-line interventionists like Senator John McCain and the plan is broadly unchanged?

Again, the UK isn’t entirely clear and this is the problem that arises when you’re outside the circle peering through the steamed up window.

There are suggestions that President François Hollande will be honoured with a one-on-one chat with Obama in St Petersburg and that Mr Cameron will not, though No.10 says it is not ready to brief on what bilaterals may or may not happen at the G20.

The US press says that President Obama sees this trip as an opportunity to evangelise for military action on air and in person with other world leaders. Doing it under President Putin’s nose can only make this a scratchy affair.

President Putin once famously brought a dog to a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel having heard that she wasn’t keen on dogs. How will he destabilise and discomfort his guests today?

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