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A Waltz on the Red Line: Will the G20 Call the Tune Again?

Alexandre T. Gingras
April 10, 2017
See also Comment @ G7G20.com

On April 4, 2017, the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria was hit by a chemical attack resulting in the deaths of 75 to 100 people. The use of sarin gas is suspected. The Syrian opposition claims that government aircraft delivered the payload, while the Assad regime claims its airstrike hit a rebel stockpile of the deadly gas.

In response, on April 6, 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump authorized the use of force against the Shayrat Air Base from where the strike on Khan Shaykhun was launched. The U.S. Navy fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, damaging the base and killing 7 to 15 people.

President Trump, who campaigned on non-engagement with the Assad regime, changed his position after seeing the images of children affected by the chemical attack. He then said the Obama administration bore responsibility for this latest attack, because it had refused to enforce its own "red line" policy, when that line was crossed in the chemical attack in Goutha on August 21, 2013.

The problem with that statement is that it is simply not true. In late summer 2013 after the Goutha attack, U.S. and UK forces in the Mediterranean were on a war footing and just about to launch strikes against regime forces in Syria. The war drums were beating loudly at the G20 leaders' summit in St. Petersburg that year where its host, President Vladimir Putin, was under severe international pressure to rein in its Syrian protégé. At the very last minute, the G20's foreign ministers were convened for an emergency meeting in the Russian city. A combination of coercive and quiet diplomacy led Assad's Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

As I described in my blog in 2013, the shocker during the St. Petersburg Summit came when Putin suggested to U.S. president Barack Obama that Syria cede control of its chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities in exchange for the informal coalition not to launch air strikes against Syria. Should Syria have failed to do so, Russia suggested it might even join the military effort against Damascus. The U.S. government responded with very guarded optimism about the Russian initiative. But after positive signals came from Damascus, topped off by a meeting in Geneva between foreign ministers John Kerry from the United States and Sergei Lavrov from Russia a few days later, a satisfactory agreement was concluded.

By striking at regime targets in Syria on April 6, 2017, the United States has dramatically raised the stakes as well as the risk of direct confrontation with Assad's chief ally, Russia. The last four years have been a dangerous waltz on the red line, but Trump's actions in the last days signal a new dance, whose steps are unknown. The way from here is not only unclear, but also extremely dangerous for the region and the international community.

This uncertainty adds to the fact that the G20 foreign ministers did not produce a communiqué at their meeting on February 16-17, 2017. This was perhaps because big and regional powers are at odds over the political and military fault line running from the Baltic Sea to the Persian Gulf.

On July 7-8, 2017, G20 leaders will meet in Hamburg, Germany, for their annual summit. It will be the first encounter between Presidents Trump and Putin. It will be the biggest showdown the international community has seen in decades. The once economically focused forum will take on the mantle of global security matters by default.

Behind the scenes, the leaders' sherpas will likely be working around the clock to try to align their respective countries' increasingly irreconcilable positions on Syria. However, if their work fails, a worst-case scenario could look like this:

It is in keeping with Trump's nature that he could attempt to build a big and bold coalition supporting strikes against Syria in order to intimidate Putin in front of his peers. As a first test on the world stage, his goal could be to corner the Russian leader and get him to diminish, if not drop, his support for Assad.

On the other hand, Putin could look to outsmart the U.S. and its allies, by stoking tensions with China and Iran, by dividing Europe further over Eastern Ukraine, and by showcasing the result of the indirect support to the so-called Islamic State by the U.S. in its attempts at weakening the Assad government.

The only thing that is certain is that the following weeks will tell us if we are heading for a great collaboration or confrontation in Germany this summer. The stage is set for one of the most important encounters in modern times and until then, the world should expect the unexpected.

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Alexandre Gingras
Alexandre T. Gingras holds a master's degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Uppsala and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Ottawa. He has worked in the House of Commons, the Senate and Leader of the Official Opposition's Office at the Parliament of Canada and has served as Executive Assistant to the Right Honourable Paul Martin, where he seconded the former Prime Minister in his activities regarding the G20 and the protection of the Congo Basin Rainforest. In his 2010 thesis, Pre-emptive Peace: Collective Security and Rogue States in the 21st Century, he advocated for the creation of a G20 foreign ministers' group to deal with global security matters.


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