ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA —
U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Russia Thursday for the annual meeting of the Group of 20. But he will not have a one-on-one meeting with the summit host, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The issue dividing the two presidents is Syria.
Indeed, the summit - usually an economic affair - is dividing down the middle over Washington’s threat of air strikes against Syria’s military for its apparent use of poison gas against civilians.
Zhu Guangyao, China’s deputy finance minister, voiced concern about a possible spike in world oil prices, should there be a military strike against Syria.
“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,” he said. This year, China is expected to displace the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer.
Russia is a close ally of China - and of Syria.
At the conference, Russian officials repeatedly cast doubt on American charges that Syria’s government gassed its own people, killing more than 1,400.
President Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov led the attack at a news conference, denouncing allegations that Syria’s government gassed civilians as “not trustworthy.”
"We cannot accept the proof which, from our point of view, is not proof at all and that is far from being convincing," he added.
In contrast, the European Union’s top two officials harshly criticized Syria’s government for the gas attack of two weeks ago.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said, “The situation remains a stain on the world’s conscience.”
Standing next to him, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy went a step further.
“Information from a wide variety of sources seems to indicate the Syrian regime is responsible for these attacks,” said Von Rompuy, who is from the Netherlands. He said that, according to information presented by several EU member states, “the Syrian regime is the only one that possesses chemical weapons and the means for their delivery in sufficient quantities” to have carried out the attack.
Both men said the only solution for Syria is a political one.
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Stronger talk came from France, a nation that administered Syria from 1918 until 1943.
"The position of France is to punish - and negotiate," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French Television 2. "We are convinced that if there is no punishment for Assad, there will be no negotiation.”
When French President Francois Hollande rolled up to Constantine Palace for the G-20 meeting, he greeted President Putin with a thin-lipped smile.
When President Obama stepped out of his limousine, he had a wider smile for Putin. But off camera, aides for both leaders pointedly noted that no one-on-one meeting is on the agenda. Before leaving Stockholm for Russia Thursday, Putin told reporters that the U.S. has “hit a wall” in its relationship with Russia.
Obama is to meet in St. Petersburg with the leaders of France, China and Japan.
The leaders gathered here represent 80 percent of the world’s economy. Several participants regret that Syria is overshadowing economic issues.
Maggie Murphy of Transparency International came to St. Petersburg to push for anti-corruption measures.
She said, “No doubt that the leaders need to take the opportunities and discuss other vital issues, but we are concerned there is a lot of progress that could be lost.”
The five leaders of the BRICS group - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - agreed to contribute $100 billion to a joint currency reserve pool. These leaders worry that Washington will raise interest rates, drawing money to the United States. This would slow growth and weaken currencies in the developing world.
At opening ceremonies, President Putin reminded the leaders that they were gathered around one table to boost global economic growth. He then asked conference participants to save discussion of Syria until dinner.