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Russian ambassador to Canada Georgiy Mamedov delivers a speech during a luncheon on August 27, 2013 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The G20's singular focus on the global economy faces a major challenge next week, as world leaders gather in St. Petersburg amid escalating plans for Western-led military strikes on Syria.

Since the G20 emerged out of the 2008 economic crisis as a new forum of world leaders, its mandate has centred on the fundamentals of global finance – issues like current-account balances, stimulus spending and exchange rates.

But with the world's attention now on Syria – combined with the fact that the global economy is stabilizing – next week's summit presents a unique opportunity for the world's most powerful leaders to talk face to face about the highly divisive and complex question of what to do in Syria. Yet the Russian summit hosts insist Syria won't be on the formal agenda.

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That would be a mistake, says Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.

"I would say the Syrian issue illustrates the opportunity that is being missed," he said. In his experience, Mr. Heinbecker said past G8 meetings have focused on both economic and political issues and proved successful at crafting responses to hot issues of the day, such as the conflict in Kosovo or nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan. As the G20 eclipses the G8 because of the increasing importance of countries like China, India and Brazil, there are growing questions as to whether the G20 should take a broader view.

Georgiy Mamedov, the Russian ambassador to Canada, told reporters in Ottawa Tuesday that the official agenda will keep its economic focus. Syria will be discussed, but only on the sidelines through bilateral meetings among leaders.

"We must keep our temper at bay and concentrate on [the] economy," he said, after delivering a speech on Russian priorities for the G20 at a meeting hosted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

The ambassador said G20 nations should work together to boost economic growth and employment, which he said would reduce the poverty that can be exploited by extremist groups.

Though U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was to have taken place in Moscow just before the summit, Mr. Mamedov said Tuesday he's "absolutely certain" the two leaders will still meet face to face in St. Petersburg.

In his speech, Mr. Mamedov urged Canada to stay out of any military action in Syria, warning the West risks repeating the mistakes of the 2003 invasion in Iraq, where Western forces attacked in response to reports – which were later discredited – that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

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He argued that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda – and not the Syrian regime – could have been behind last week's deadly attacks in suburban Damascus, where it is widely suspected that chemical weapons were used.

"I think terrorists used some primitive chemical devices with the full knowledge that there will be a knee-jerk reaction from certain Western capitals who were under solemn obligation to do something once [the] red line is crossed," he said. "And we will all be worse [off] if we unfortunately swallow this bait."

Mr. Heinbecker, who attended the ambassador's speech, took issue with the comparison to Iraq.

"They're not the same," he said. "There's a moral obligation to do something [in Syria]. The Russians may think that the outcome will not be satisfactory, but we know for sure that what's going on now is costing a vast upset of human life."

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