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Syria crisis grips G20 summit

Economic issues were supposed to be the focus of the agenda at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. However, during breaks between meetings, it was the crisis in Syria that dominated conversations.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday that G20 leaders will not reach agreement on Syria because President Putin was "miles away" from the truth over the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. "This G20 is never going to reach conclusions on Syria," Cameron said flatly, "the divisions are too great."

US President Baqrack Obama underlined the need to uphold the ibnternational ban on chemical weapons use at a dinner for the G20 leaders, stressing that he was conjvinced that SYira used poison gas.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the G20 summit in his home town of St. Petersburg was to focus on economics issues. Topics include sustainable development for all, a G20 action plan for growth and job creation as well as measures to combat tax evasion. But the dramatic developments in Syria have raised different questions: Can there be a political solution to the Syrian civil war? Or will military intervention be necessary?

Diplomatic fronts between countries have become entrenched - particularly between Putin and Obama. But positions taken by other countries are also at odds. The prospects of finding a solution in St. Petersburg are not looking good.

In a first in G20 circles, foreign ministers of the countries involved have accompanied their heads of state. UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is also at the summit. One can assume that diplomatic activity is running high behind closed doors at the Constantine Palace. If those seated at the large, round table inside the Tsar's palace cannot come to an agreement, then all diplomatic efforts will be in vain.

Little hope

In an official setting with tabletope microphones, a man with brown hair places his hand under his chin thoughtfully while sitting next to a woman in an orange business suit (Photo: Sergei Karpukhin / REUTERS)

British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen in on the talks

According to German chancellor Angela Merkel, there is a tiny glimmer of hope, as she said after her arrival on Thursday (05.09.2013). Given Germany's limited options, it will do its part so that "the political process gets a chance, even if it's just a tiny chance," Merkel said. She argued that the United Nations should stay involved in the process, including with regard to a next Syria conference. "But things are very difficult," she said.

One good thing, the chancellor said, is that the G20 provides a forum for discussion. "Whoever speaks is trying to communicate," she said. She did add, however, that it would be a bad idea to raise expectations unnecessarily.

A skeptical approach seems particularly appropriate given the extremely cold greeting exchanged betweem Putin and Obama today, which did not seem to indicate that either leader is hoping to close the gulf between the countries while in St. Petersburg.

Action plan passed

epa03851992 Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) exchange smiles as the latter arrives for the first session of G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, 05 September 2013. Top item on the agenda is thecrisis in Syria where both the US and Russia hold widely opposing views. EPA/ANATOLY MALTSEV

Beyond Syria, NSA leaker Edward Snowden's asylum in Russia has hurt relations between the US and Russia

More agreement came in matters of economics. G20 members passed an action plan on economic growth and job creation in their first working session. In addition, state finances are to be reworked - though details were not further specified. Members also agreed to combat tax evasion and to more tightly control hedge funds and shadow banks. But there have not been any resolutions on those issues yet, either.

The economic situation of emerging economies is also a focus. The announcement by the US Federal Reserve that it intends to end its policy of "cheap money" has led to a massive draining of capital. German chancellor Merkel believes the Fed's exit strategy is in order, but she also urges caution. According to Merkel, the G20 shows that every national action can have an international impact.

"And that is why we have to ensure that nations coordinate," she said.

The chancellor was convinced that the summit would focus far more on the economic situation of developing economies than on the euro crisis.

More to be done

The topic of development also came up at the G20 meeting, comparing the current situation with that of the G20 meeting in Seoul in 2010. Members also touched on future strategies in what they called their "Development Outlook."

According to Jörn Kalinski at the Oxfam NGO, there is room to grow. "The G20 has spent far too much time carrying out reports, studies, or analyses and then saying, 'We can tick that off our list.'"

Kalinski said that the question "What is actually happening?" should prevail far more often.

Marvin Meier of the World Vision International aid organization sees things in a slightly more optimistic light. "We have seen improvements in the last few years," Meier said. He is sure that even the most powerful countries can now see that growth for everyone is only possible if weaker countries aren't left behind. Child mortality is decreasing.

"Not as quickly as we want, of course" Meier said. "But there is always the hope that the overall situation is improving."

On the second day of the summit, several bilateral meetings will be taking place between members of the G20. A meeting between business owners and trade union representatives is also planned. Another session on economic subjects will end the summit on Friday afternoon - exactly 24 hours after its official opening.

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