Canada arrived in St. Petersburg with strong words for Russian host Vladimir Putin as world leaders prepare to discuss the situation in Syria on the sidelines of this year's G20 summit.
The G20 is normally focused on economic matters, but several G20 leaders have invited their foreign affairs ministers along for meetings specifically focused on Syria.
Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had strong words Wednesday for Russian President Vladimir Putin's continued support for the Syrian regime.
"You know, the Russian government's moral, political, material support to Assad has given him the ability to soldier on. This crisis is going into its 30th month. So the comments he's made of late I think are empty and hollow," he said.
"I think the Russian position – they've 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 intractability to work with others on this issue. That, in some respects, is the heart of the problem."
Mr. Baird said out loud what has become increasingly obvious – that the G20's official agenda will be sidelined by debate over the looming military strikes in Syria.
"It became clear this is going to dominate this economic conference so a number of leaders announced that they would bring their foreign minister," he said.
Baird made clear Wednesday that Canada has not been asked to provide any military support for a Western military strike in Syria.
He praised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's presentation this week to Congress on the need for intervention and said Canada strongly supports that position.
"I thought John Kerry's testimony [Tuesday] before Congress was strong, was powerful. We obviously share the views of the Obama administration on a need for a moral response," Mr. Baird told reporters on the Canadian Forces plane that transported Prime Minister Stephen Harper, senior government officials and accompanying media to the summit. "It cannot be acceptable in the international community for a dictator to use these weapons of mass destruction and kill hundreds of men, women and children."
The British Parliament has voted against supporting a military strike on Syria, while the U.S. Congress is debating the issue and is expected to make a decision next week. Mr. Baird said there is no reason for a Parliamentary debate in Canada because Canada is not contemplating military action.
The possibility of involvement from NATO has not been ruled out.
Mr. Baird said that while it is still not clear what type of military response Washington has in mind, it is not likely to be the type of mission in which Canada could contribute.
"It's not something that's been requested of us, it's not something that has been asked. I'm not a military expert. President Obama has not shared the type of military intervention that he's contemplating. I think most thoughtful observers would anticipate the use of cruise missiles, armed drones, neither of which Canada, the Canadian Forces, are in possession of," he said. "So at this stage, I don't see the capacity for Canada to participate militarily. Obviously we have politically supported the Obama administration in this regard and I think this is a strong moral stand."
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.
The landscape of this G20 is different than it was in June at the G8 meeting in Ireland, where Russia's stance on Syria prompted Prime Minister Stephen 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.
With a report from The Canadian Press