(Russian President Vladimir Putin met US President Donald Trump at Osaka on June 29, 2019)
Although G20 summit in Osaka achieved nothing and there were no breakthrough decisions, a pleasant feeling had appeared momentarily that in the disjointed world situation, all the participants in the event at least reconfirmed their commitment to continue efforts to improve the global trade system, including work to reform the WTO. The G20 summits are generally convergent occasions and Osaka was no different.
The ensuing meditative reveries lingered on through Sunday like an opium-induced blurring of Romantic imagination out of Thomas De Quincey. However, by early Monday it dawned that life is real as the news broke that just past midnight Israeli jets stealthily approaching Syria via Lebanese air space had rained missiles at multiple targets in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs.
According to latest reports, sixteen people, including a baby, were killed and 21 others suffered injuries, including a month-old baby girl, who suffered burns and facial wounds. At one stroke, Israel demolished the chimera of global governance that the G20 symbolises. The missile attack constituted the violation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of two UN member states — Lebanon and Syria. Israel committed a war crime by killing innocent unarmed civilians.
How is global governance possible without a rule-based order? The relentless promotion of trade war, protectionism and militarism that we are witnessing brings to mind the famous coinage of Thomas Hobbes — Bellum omnium contra omnes ( “the war of all against all”).
Yet, the much-awaited meeting between Trump and Putin at Osaka on Friday, which closely followed the ‘trilateral’ meeting of the national security advisors of the US, Russia and Israel in Jerusalem on Tuesday, was widely expected to produce some convergences regarding Syria and the situation around Iran.
(National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev at a trilateral summit at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019.)
Israel had hyped up the meeting of the NSAs and during a joint press conference with the visiting secretary of the Russian national security council Nikolai Patrushev, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had boasted that “security cooperation between Russia and Israel has already contributed much to the security and stability of our region and has made a fundamental difference in the situation in the region.”
But it was only typical Israeli bluster. In fact, today’s missile attack is an act of ‘coercive diplomacy’ by Israel. The Israelis are showing that they have neutralised the Russian S-300 missile system which is supposedly guarding Syrian air space. This is Israel’s angry riposte to Russia’s refusal to break up with Iran in Syria.
On the Israeli missile attack on Monday, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said, “We are establishing the facts now. We do not know what happened there. We want to gain insight into it, but the necessity to respect and execute the UN Security Council’s operating resolutions, that no one cancelled, is our principle which we will proceed from when assessing actions of any players in the region.”
Suffice to say that the Russian-Iranian axis in the Syrian conflict has far from outlived its utility — although the two countries would each have its specific interests in the Syrian situation. Thus, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov disclosed today in Moscow that another trilateral summit on Syria between Russia, Iran and Turkey is due to take place in the near future.
To quote Peskov, “They raised the issue at the meeting of President Putin and Erdogan (at Osaka). They did talk about such a summit. It is understood that it will be held soon.” There are also media reports that Turkey will host the trilateral summit in July. The previous such summits took place in Sochi (November 2017), Ankara (April 2018), Tehran (September 2018) and Sochi (February 2019). Evidently, the raison d’être of the Russia-Turkey-Iran format remains even in the conditions of the current US-Iran standoff.
No doubt, the situation in Idlib province in northeast Syria is fraught with profound contradictions, which need to be reconciled urgently. This is one thing. (Read an insightful report by Xinhua news agency, here, on the strong undercurrents in the Idlib situation.)
However, the big picture out of all this is that although Putin had a “good meeting” with Trump in Osaka on Friday and they held “very business-like and pragmatic” discussions that “covered practically the entire range of issues of mutual interest” (in Putin’s words), all he would say was that the discussions on regional conflicts were “overall… useful consultations.”
Putin sounded frustrated that Washington has shown no intentions even to expand economic ties with Russia or tap the vast potential of bilateral trade. He noted, “That is why I have no idea if they (Trump administration) will do anything or not. At any rate, one thing is sure — we are not going to ask for anything. No means no. And if there is interest, we will respond in kind and do everything we can to turn the situation around.”
Of course, the two presidents have instructed their respective foreign ministers to launch consultations on a New START treaty. But even here, Putin noted, “I do not know if those consultations will lead to the extension of the New START treaty, it is too early to speak about it.”
The paradox lies herein. For Trump, the prime consideration in the period ahead will be that there are no serious hiccups on the foreign policy front that might upset his apple cart during his campaign for the November 2020 election. The Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square next May offers a great photo-op for him, which he wouldn’t want to miss. But basically, Trump went to Osaka wearing velvet gloves with a focused mind on creating foreign-policy underpinnings for his bid for a second term as president.
Israel certainly factored in the inconclusive meeting between Trump and Putin while launching the missile strike on Damascus. It is a stark reminder that Israel will continue to fuel the tensions over Iran’s presence in Syria and draw Trump into it.