Syria dominates as G-20 talks begin

G-20 LEADERS kicked off their two-day summit on Thursday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin welcoming them to his home town of St Petersburg.

Amid clear blue skies, the Russian leader stood waiting in the courtyard of a grand palace built in the early 18th century for Peter the Great, which he had ordered restored for use as a presidential palace about a decade ago.

One by one, the leaders drove up in black limousines to be greeted by their Russian host, before being ushered inside the ornate sal-mon-pink building. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was among those he met, one of six non G-20 leaders invited to the summit.

All eyes were peeled for the moment Mr Putin came face-to-face with his United States counterpart, President Barack Obama. The two men looked set for a showdown over US allegations that Russia's longtime ally, Syria, had used chemical weapons and should be punished for it.

Their frosty relations had led well-known French newspaper Le Figaro to kick off one of its reports yesterday with a headline pointing dramatically to a "new Cold War" between the one-time superpower rivals.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Putin had rubbished the evidence presented by US leaders that Syria had resorted to using toxic sarin gas in an attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people, describing this as "absurd" and "utter nonsense".

He even suggested that US Secretary of State John Kerry had knowingly misled and even lied to the US Congressional committee that he had lobbied for support for US military action.

Mr Obama, speaking in Sweden on Wednesday on his way to Russia, said he would continue to engage with Mr Putin to try to win Russian support for punitive action against Syria.

He made it plain that it was not so much his personal credibility that was at stake, but that of the international community, the US and the American Congress, since all of these had signed up to international agreements which outlawed the use of chemical weapons. "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line," he said.

When the two presidents finally came face-to-face yesterday, there were strained smiles and handshakes as they posed briefly for the cameras.

Thanking his host, Mr Obama appeared to nod at the palace, declaring it "beautiful", before being shown inside, as others before him.

Soon afterwards, leaders got down to their first working session to discuss how to boost global economic growth and create jobs. They continued their talks over dinner, before rounding off the evening with a grand concert, and will resume their economic discussions today.

But while the official agenda for the working sessions is focused largely on the global economy, many minds were on the Syria question.

Observers pointed to an apparent softening of Mr Putin's stance, suggesting that Russia might consider backing a United Nations move to deal with Syria if it could be proven that it had indeed used chemical weapons.

But he had also told local media that Russia "had its own plans" on how to respond to any attack on Syria, which some took to mean that it could resume its supplies of S-300 air defence missiles to Damascus, a longstanding Russian ally.

Mr Putin also met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday on the sidelines of the summit. Syria is likely to have been discussed, since China has often joined Russia in blocking moves to censure Syria at the United Nations.

Giving an indication of China's position, its Vice-Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao told reporters yesterday that military action would have a negative impact on the world economy, especially on oil prices.

Mr Obama is also scheduled to meet Mr Xi and French President Francois Hollande to make his case for an international response on Syria, after meeting Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But strikingly, there are no plans for him to hold talks with Mr Putin, a clear snub to the host, although officials said the two leaders would have opportunities to talk on the sidelines of the summit meetings.

warren@sph.com.sg

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