What to look out for at the G20 summit

Leaders are piling into Cannes. Here are the top topics on the agenda at this year's conference.

Promotional posters lining the streets around this year's G20 summit on the French Riviera carry the message: "L'Histoire s'écrit à Cannes" ["The history is written in Cannes"]. This is a lot for the host, Nicolas Sarkozy, to live up to. Even before France took presidency of the G20 at the start of this year, Sarkozy had publicly been relishing his time in the international spotlight. His ambitious agenda for "reforming the international monetary system" and "strengthening the social dimension of globalisation" would portray him as a global statesman, boosting his image at home and paving the way for his re-election bid in France next year.

Yet all is not going smoothly. Presidents, chancellors and prime ministers are piling in to Cannes ahead of the short official summit -- which is just 24 hours long -- for emergency talks on saving the system, not reforming it.

His global vision has been overshadowed by problems closer to home. The slow-coming European rescue deal, which did little for anyone's political legacy, has been thrown into fresh uncertainty as Greece announced its intention to hold a referendum on the terms of its aid package.

Sarkozy was clearly rattled, speaking publicly of his shock and the need to stick to the plan, something he will re-iterate during emergency talks between himself, Angela Merkel and George Papandreou this evening. This story has dominated the headlines, along with the chances of China's Hu Jintao throwing the euro a lifeline in Cannes.

Sarkozy is not headline news. During the first day of official G20 business tomorrow, he will be hoping to make his mark and bring the spotlight back on him.

He has long advocated a financial transaction tax as a means of raising money for development and climate change. At his behest, Bill Gates will report on the issue to G20 leaders. He is expected to give his backing to the tax, which could raise $50bn a year.

France has been working to secure a "coalition of the willing" -- a group of supportive countries such as France, Germany, South Africa and others -- that circumvents opposing countries such as the UK and US. The tax has long been popular in France, and it would be a lasting legacy of France's G20 presidency. Sarkozy has been banking on this, and not crisis management closer to home, to be the history that is written in Cannes.

Simon Chouffot is a freelance journalist and media specialist

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.