Syria uncertainty casts long shadow over Russia's G20
MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia on Thursday hosts the G20 summit hoping to push forward an agenda to stimulate growth but with world leaders distracted by divisions on the prospect of US-led military action in Syria.
After US President Barack Obama's surprise decision to seek the backing of Congress for strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, it now appears any attack will take place after the two-day summit in Saint Petersburg, leaving an air of tense uncertainty hanging over the event.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a vocal critic of the West's policies on Syria, has expressed strong doubt that Assad was behind an alleged chemical attack on August 21 that has prompted the plan for military action.
Leaders are expected to agree a Saint Petersburg "action plan" for sustainable and balanced global growth but these ambitions risk being drowned out amid the cacophony accompanying debate between major powers on Syria.
Despite being the biggest current headache for the international community, the Syrian crisis does not formally feature on the official agenda of the annual summit of the world's top 20 developed and emerging nations.
But there can be little doubt it will dominate bilateral meetings and may yet feature in plenary sessions at the seaside Tsarist palace of Strelna on the Gulf of Finland seashore.
"The G20 was created to solve financial and economic problems for a stabilisation of the global economy," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"The topic (of Syria) is not on the agenda. But any leader at the summit can raise this question and we are ready for such a conversation."
Arguably the two most important global protagonists over the Syrian crisis - Obama and Putin - are currently not even planning to have a one-on-one meeting at the summit.
The United States last month cancelled a planned bilateral summit in Moscow due to the row over US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
The Kremlin, peeved by the snub, said there was no time to pencil in a summit bilateral with the US leader.
With tension haunting US-Russia ties, Putin will be looking to show with a string of meetings with emerging market allies - notably Chinese President Xi Jinping - that Moscow is in no way isolated.
Indeed, the informal BRICS grouping of the leading emerging markets - Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa - is expected to have its own mini-summit in a demonstration of the group's strategic importance.
The split between Russia and the West on Syria currently seems irreconcilable.
Moscow is showing no faith in Western claims that the Assad regime carried out a chemical weapons attack on August 21 outside Damascus, while issuing grave warnings about the dangers of military intervention.
Putin may be happy to gloat over the West's embarrassing hesitations on Syria. But leaders will also remind him it is Russia who has repeatedly blocked UN Security Council action against the Assad regime.
"I don't see what there can be to agree about," said Sergei Karaganov, the dean of the faculty of global economics at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
"Russia is never going to agree to bombing Syria and the Americans are not going to renounce this," he said.
But Putin has indicated he may not be afraid of tackling the problem head-on in his home city at the G20 summit, which he described at the weekend as a "good place" for the discussion of Syria.
The economy may itself not prove an entirely harmonious area, with big emerging market countries worried about plans by the US Federal Reserve to taper its economic stimulus package which helped swell their economies.
Once the dynamic tigers of the global economy, some emerging markets have shown particular fragility of late, with currencies in India and Brazil coming under particular pressure.
The unevenness of the global economic recovery will be a major concern for all the leaders even as the embattled euro zone starts to move out of recession.
"Decisions taken by countries based solely on their own national interest can have serious implications for other nations," the South African presidency said in a statement ahead of the summit.