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Canada not expecting miracle at G20 summit

Russia 'picked a lane' on Syria years ago: Baird

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday for the G20 summit.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday for the G20 summit.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Canada is holding out little hope of reaching a compromise with Russia on the continuing violence and alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, as Stephen Harper and fellow leaders began arriving Wednesday for the G20 summit.

A hastily organized meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines appeared designed to keep the larger economic forum from getting completely swamped with talk of the political crisis.

But Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird threw cold water on the prospect of a larger consensus on how to respond to the alleged chemical attack launched against civilians two weeks ago in a Damascus suburb. Russian president and summit host Vladimir Putin has long backed the regime of Bashar Assad and has warned any strike against Syria without UN sanction would be in violation of international law.

"I think we hope that rational, sane people, freedom-loving people, people who abhor the use of these weapons, want to work collectively to ensure to the best of our ability that these weapons are not used again," Baird told reporters travelling on Prime Minister Harper's plane.

"(Russia) picked a lane in this battle years ago and I just don't foresee it changing. This is the great issue we're tackling, Russia's great intractability to work with others on this issue. In some respects that's the heart of the problem."

U.S. President Barack Obama also expressed frustration Wednesday about Russia's position. Speaking in Sweden on his way to the G20 summit, Obama said relations with Russia have "hit a wall," but also expressed confidence the two can work together on some issues.

Putin told The Associated Press and Russia's state Channel 1 television in an interview late Tuesday he wouldn't rule out a strike against Syria as long as his government received "objective, precise data as to who committed" the chemical attack. He added Moscow has provided some components of the S-300 air defence missile system to Syria but has frozen further shipments.

Baird downplayed the meeting of foreign ministers, calling it an "informal discussion on the margins of the G20." Baird's counterparts from the United States, Brazil, China, Russia and Turkey were expected to attend.

"The G20 is normally focused on economic issues, job creation, world economic growth," Baird said. "But obviously the crisis in Syria has become the biggest humanitarian challenge of this century and the escalation of the brutality of Assad's regime against the Syrian people is of such great concern that obviously we need to take some time to discuss how to properly address it."

This will be the first time in the G20's five-year history foreign ministers have met at the same time as leaders. Countries such as China and Russia have resisted any previous attempts to make it more than an economic forum.

Other nations are not as keen as the United States and France to sanction a strike against the regime of Assad. Obama is expected to engage in heavy lobbying on the sidelines of the summit. India, for example, has said it would prefer to wait for full results of a UN chemical weapons inspection.

Harper, like Putin, was also hoping for a summit that was focused on the global economy -- a policy area entirely in the prime minister's wheelhouse.

"Wheels down, Russia -- looking forward to the days ahead, focused on improving the global economy," Harper tweeted after he arrived.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2013 A14

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