G20 is a rare chance to seek Syria consensus

Obama and Putin must discuss Syria at this week's meeting

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Ostensibly, the G20 is an economic forum. Topics scheduled for discussion at the two-day meeting starting in St Petersburg tomorrow range from international financial reforms to enhancing multilateral trade. Overshadowing all, though, will be Syria.

Since Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown began in 2011, the United Nations has failed to reach a consensus on condemnation, let alone action. Two of the five veto-holding Security Council members – Russia and China – have stuck resolutely to their position that the UN has no business with the internal disputes of sovereign states. Moscow, in particular, has cleaved to its long-term ally in Damascus, regardless of its ever bloodier tactics. But with evidence of the use of chemical weapons piling up and Washington on the brink of military action in response, the question of global action is in sharp focus once again.

The climate in which the G20 meeting takes place may be inauspicious. Already-lukewarm relations between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were plunged into the deep freeze by Russia’s offer of temporary asylum to Edward Snowden last month. In reply, the US President cancelled his pre-summit meeting with his Russian counterpart. But St Petersburg is still a prime diplomatic opportunity.

Although the final decision on US air strikes against the Assad regime now rests with a fractious and factional Congress, international support is no less important than it was, particularly after Parliament last week reined in David Cameron’s plans for British involvement. Nor does the global response to either Syria or the use of chemical weapons begin and end with US military action. It can only be hoped that face-to-face talks between key regional and world powers will help ease the UN deadlock.

But Syria is not the only crisis looming over the St Petersburg summit. The slow-down in emerging economies – precipitated in part by the prospective “tapering” of quantitative easing in the US – will also be a priority. While formal sessions wrestle with the nitty-gritty of, say, multinational tax avoidance, side-line meetings must focus on soothing the market turmoil playing havoc with currencies across the developing world. Swap arrangements and a foreign-reserve fund are both sensible options on the table.

All of which only emphasises, again, the need for co-operation. While their swift action in the aftermath of the financial crisis proved that G20 leaders can work together, they have since drifted apart. Yet as political and economic power become more evenly balanced, collaboration must become the norm rather than the exception. Ever more global problems, from banking regulations to climate change, otherwise have little hope of being solved. The G20 may have started life with an economic remit. But this week’s highly political summitry is a glimpse of things to come.

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