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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper boards the Canadian Forces plane in Ottawa, Canada Tuesday September 3, 2013.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has departed today for an international meeting that was once forged out of economic tumult and is now being reshaped by an unfolding political crisis.

The G20 leaders' summit in St. Petersburg, Russia was supposed to be focused on global economics – on nurturing stability in countries rocked for the past five years by slowdowns and bank failures.

But with amped-up tensions over Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, even summit host Vladimir Putin has had to concede that this year's G20 will have to adapt and tackle the question of what to do about the violence and loss of life.

Harper spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron about Syria before leaving for Russia this morning.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is accompanying the prime minister and will meet separately with counterparts from the United States, Brazil, China, Russia and Turkey.

That's a big change as far as G20 summit history goes – countries such as China and Russia have resisted any previous attempts to make it more than an economic forum.

Foreign ministers met under its auspices last year, but well before the actual summit took place in Los Cabos, Mexico. Russia, which insists on the primacy of the United Nations where it has a veto on the security council, participated with great reservations.

"Putin does his calculations," said Gordon Smith, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and a former sherpa for prime minister Jean Chretien at several G7 and G8 summits.

"He realizes that on Syria he's not going to be alone in advocating caution, but that may have interesting longer term dimensions as to where the G20 goes and whether the G20 starts to talk about political issues which it hasn't done before."

Indeed, other countires are not as keen as say the United States and France to sanction a strike against the regime of Bashar Assad. U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to do some 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. The British Parliament last week voted down a resolution calling for military action.

Canada and Australia, meanwhile, say they believe U.S. intelligence that places the blame for a chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb on the Assad regime.

The landscape is different than it was in June at the G8 meeting in Ireland, where Russia's stance on Syria prompted Harper to say it was more like a "G7 plus one."

And yet 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.

Canada and Russia were on the same page when it came to wanting more definitive commitments from G20 nations on how they would tackle their deficits and debts, planning for fiscal consolidation as stimulus projects wind down.

They are also interested in helping to unlock billions of dollars held by insurance companies, mutual funds and other private institutions by making it easier and safer for them to invest in major infrastructure projects.

And there is support for common action against tax evasion and avoidance by helping to automatically exchange tax information rather by doing it only on request.

"A key part of the economic plan for this summit was to send a message of confidence to world markets," said John Kirton, co-director of the University of Toronto's G20 Research Group.

"If the message that is sent through the media from St. Petersburg is that the G20 leaders disagree on Syria, that's a negative."

Kirton says there is still a possibility that the larger leaders summit could find a way to work Syria into their economic work. Fighting terrorism, for example, is one area where all countries can find agreement.

"When the leaders come to the agenda item where they're supposed to say a few words about the fight against terrorist financing, the obvious question will be 'Are there terrorists in Syria?"' said Kirton.

"There are actually all kinds in Syria, and we're all worried about them."

The impact of the Syria and Egyptian conflicts on oil and gas pricing, and on world markets as a whole, could also be an item up for discussion, along with humanitarian aid. The UN refugee agency announced Tuesday that the number of Syrians who have fled the country has surpassed the two million mark.

Harper does not face the same kinds of intense domestic pressures as some of his counterparts – Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is in the middle of an election campaign, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is about to face one, and Obama is trying to convince Congress to back a military strike.

Still, the NDP says the Conservative government should wait until the United Nations completes its report on the chemical weapons attack before backing any U.S.-led action. It would also like Harper to focus more on diplomacy than on military force.

Harper has said Canada would not be in a position to contribute militarily to any kind of mission, but endorses the position of Washington and other allies.

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