By Timothy Heritage and Matt Spetalnick
U.S. President Barack Obama faced growing pressure from world leaders on Thursday not to launch military strikes in Syria at a summit on the global economy that was hijacked by the conflict.
The Group of 20 (G20) developed and developing economies met in St. Petersburg to try and forge a united front on how to revive economic growth, but failed to heal divisions over a U.S. plan to wind down a programme to stimulate the world economy.
The club that accounts for two thirds of the world’s population and 90 percent of its output looked as divided over therapy for the economy as it is over possible military action following a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Obama arrived in Russia’s former imperial capital with a showdown looming at a dinner hosted by President Vladimir Putin, with a debate on Syria the main course on the menu.
Obama wore a stiff smile as he approached Putin and grasped his hand. Putin also wore a businesslike expression and it was only when they turned to pose for photographers that Obama broke into a broader grin. There was no clutching of arms or hugs.
The first round at the summit went to Putin, as China, the European Union, the BRICS emerging economies and Pope Francis – in a letter – warned of the dangers of military intervention without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
“Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price,” Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said.
The BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – echoed that remark, and the Pope, who leads the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged the G20 leaders to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution”.
European Union leaders described the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus, which killed up to 1,400 people, as “abhorrent” but said: “There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.”
Obama is unlikely to be deterred. He said before talks with Japan’s prime minister on the sidelines of the summit that the use of chemical arms in Syria was “not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.”
Aides said he would set out his views at the leaders’ dinner and hoped to build support for military action, although aides acknowledge a consensus might be hard to find.
“We would not anticipate every member of the G20 agreeing about the way forward in Syria, particularly given the Russian position over many, many months now in terms of resisting efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. .
Putin was isolated on Syria at a Group of Eight meeting in June, the last big summit of world powers, but could now turn the tables on Obama, who recently likened him to a “bored kid in the back of the classroom” who slouches at meetings.
Only France, which has already said it is preparing to join U.S. military action, rallied loudly behind Obama.
“We are convinced that if there is no punishment for Mr. Assad, there will be no negotiation,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said before leaving for St. Petersburg.
With backing by Beijing and Moscow unlikely at the U.N. Security Council, where both have veto powers, Obama is seeking the approval of the U.S. Congress instead.
Putin says rebel forces may have carried out the poison gas attack and that any military strike without Security Council approval would violate international law, a view now being supported increasingly openly by others – including countries that have usually disagreed with Moscow on Syria.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are also in St. Petersburg to push for diplomacy rather than military options, and support efforts to organise an international peace conference on Syria.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, portrayed the “camp of supporters of a strike on Syria” as divided, and said: “It is impossible to say that very many states support the idea of a military operation.”
Peskov also reiterated that the United States had failed to produce convincing proof that Assad, who is backed by Russian arms, and his forces had resorted to chemical warfare.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw no chance of agreement between Putin and Obama on Syria. U.S.-Russian ties have long been strained by political differences but went into freefall when Russia harboured Edward Snowden, a former spy agency contractor who leaked details of U.S. intelligence programmes.
Any G20 decision on Syria would not be binding but Putin would like to see a consensus to avert military action in what would be a significant – but unlikely – personal triumph.
LOSS OF HARMONY
The G20 achieved unprecedented cooperation between developed and emerging nations to stave off economic collapse during the 2009 financial crisis, but the harmony has now gone.
Member states are at odds as the U.S. recovery gains pace, Europe lags, and developing economies worry about the impact of U.S. plans to stop a bond-buying programme that has helped kick-start the U.S. economy.
“Our main task is returning the global economy towards steady and balanced growth. This task has unfortunately not been resolved,” Putin said. “Therefore systemic risks, the conditions for an acute crisis relapse, persist.”
The BRICS agreed to commit $100 billion to a currency reserve pool that could help defend against a balance of payments crisis, although the mechanism will take time to set up.
There is likely to be an agreement on measures to fight tax evasion by multinational companies at the summit in the spectacular, 18th-century Peterhof palace complex, built on the orders of Tsar Peter the Great.
An initiative will be presented on refining regulation of the $630-trillion global market for financial derivatives to prevent a possible markets blow-up.
Steps to give the so-called ‘shadow banking’ sector until 2015 to comply with new global rules will also be discussed.