Syria tensions set to dominate G20 summit
TENSIONS over Syria are expected to dominate a summit of the world's major economies being held in Russia in the run-up to an expected US military assault which host Vladimir Putin has warned would be an act of aggression.
Prime Minister David Cameron risks being sidelined at the G20 gathering in St Petersburg, after ruling out British involvement in any military action in the wake of his shock Commons defeat on Syria last week.
He is not expected to have a formal bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama, who is leading the international drive for an armed response to President Bashar Assad's apparent breach of the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
Mr Obama last night cleared the first hurdle to obtaining Congressional approval for a strike, as the influential Senate Foreign Affairs Committee backed the use of force by a margin of 10-7, moving the measure to a full Senate vote next week. The proposal allows the use of force for 60 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension.
The president has said he is confident of receiving approval from Congress for "limited and proportionate" military action, which he said would not involve US troops putting "boots on the ground" in Syria.
Mr Assad had flouted a chemical weapons ban enshrined in treaties signed by governments representing 98% of the world's population, he said, adding: "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."
Speaking in Sweden as he travelled to St Petersburg, the US president said the credibility of the international community was "on the line" if it allowed Assad to act with impunity.
He repeated his "high confidence" that the regime was to blame for the sarin gas attack on a suburb of Damascus on August 21 which the White House believes killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children.
Meanwhile, France's prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, rallying support for French involvement in military action, told the National Assembly in Paris there was no doubt the Syrian government was to blame and a failure to react would allow Mr Assad to launch a similar attack again.
But Mr Putin said any evidence on culpability for the attack should be presented to the UN Security Council - where Russia has repeatedly blocked reprisals against Mr Assad.
The Russian president, a long-time ally of the Syrian dictator, said he "doesn't exclude" Moscow voting in favour of a military response if the Security Council is provided with "evidence that would be obvious and prove beyond doubt who did it". But he said that a US strike in the absence of Security Council approval would amount to aggression.
Mr Obama cancelled a planned one-on-one meeting with Mr Putin in Moscow ahead of the G20 gathering as it became clear the pair would not find common ground on Syria.
Mr Cameron has said he will make the case at the G20 for a robust international response to the use of chemical weapons.
And he promised to use Britain's "diplomatic muscle" to press the international community to increase its support for an estimated two million civilians forced to flee their homes during Syria's two-year civil war.
Britain has already contributed £348 million to the humanitarian relief effort and Mr Cameron is expected to announce further aid in St Petersburg as he urges fellow leaders to dig deep for a UN appeal which has so far received less than half of the sums requested.
He will also seek agreement from fellow leaders on the need for better access for humanitarian workers to those affected by the fighting - including the establishment of safe routes for aid convoys and the removal of bureaucratic obstacles to non-governmental agencies trying to enter Syria to provide help on the ground.
The Prime Minister confirmed on Tuesday that the UK "can't be part and won't be part" of any military strike as a result of his Commons defeat last week, but warned that it would be "perilous" for the international community to let Mr Assad escape unpunished.
He told MPs: "If no action is taken following President Obama's red line and if no action is taken following this appalling use of chemical weapons, you have to ask yourself what sort of Armageddon are the Syrian people going to be facing?... I think we would see more chemical weapons attacks from the regime."
Syria does not even feature on the formal agenda for the summit of an organisation which brings together 20 of the world's most important economies to discuss issues like growth, financial stability and recovery from the global downturn.
But the crisis is certain to dominate discussions on the margins of the two-day meeting, which comes amid indications of healthier recovery in countries like the UK, US and Japan, but faltering growth in emerging economies like China.
Britain will aim to use the formal proceedings in St Petersburg to press for progress on priorities like tax transparency, reforms to the financial services sector and free trade. The UK will resist an expected push by Brazil and Argentina to water down anti-protectionist language in the summit communique.
Following phone calls in recent days with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, Mr Cameron will be pressing for the completion of an EU-Canada free trade deal which eluded him at the Lough Erne G8 summit hosted by the UK in Northern Ireland earlier this year.
He will be joined by Chancellor George Osborne, as well as the Bank of England's Mark Carney, who is the only central bank governor to attend in his role as chair of the international Financial Stability Board.