Fine words but no action from G8

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 10:26pm


In the context of the war in Syria, the G8's support for convening peace talks in Geneva "as soon as possible" and a pledge of US$1.5 billion in humanitarian aid are the diplomatic equivalent of motherhood and apple pie - a comforting reaffirmation of the decent and unobjectionable.

But neither will do much to end the crisis any time soon.

Agreement on Tuesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US counterpart Barack Obama, brokered by the summit host British Prime Minister David Cameron, may have been based on a common desire "to stop the bloodshed" but it barely papered over the cracks.

Cameron had warned that the Russian president was isolated. But when consensus is required, as it is at the G8, one country still trumps seven. Putin did sign up for a call for a "transitional government" in Damascus but he gave nothing on the crucial question of whether Bashar al-Assad should step down.

So what had been billed as "a clarifying moment" clarified only that there is still no agreement among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

That's as true now as it was when the Syrian uprising - by far the bloodiest of the Arab spring - began in March 2011. The difference now is that at least 93,000 people have been killed.

Diplomatic efforts to convene the Geneva negotiations will continue. Assad, making military gains with the support of Lebanon's Hezbollah, has pledged to send a delegation, but the opposition remains deeply reluctant.

In one sign of change, however, France's Francois Hollande said he believed that Iran's moderate president-elect Hassan Rowhani could be invited - a signal of goodwill towards Tehran.

Otherwise, the predictable failure in Enniskillen shows there has been little progress since the first Geneva conference in June 2012. Assad, then as now, refuses to negotiate his own departure.

Other key elements of the Syrian tragedy got careful references. The condemnation of "any use of chemical weapons" glossed over Russia's insistence that there is no evidence of the use of sarin nerve gas by government forces. Concern about "extremism" was another. And no mention was made of controversial plans by Washington, London and Paris directly to arm rebel forces.

Aid agencies will be pleased with US$1.5 billion in humanitarian aid. That's a substantial sticking plaster. But the wound is still bleeding heavily and shows no sign of being staunched.