ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — They're supposed to be talking about growth and money, but the threat of war in Syria is creeping into nearly every conversation as the leaders of the world's 20 top economies huddle in Russia this week.
Men at the forefront of the geopolitical standoff over Syria's civil war sat around the same huge, ornate table Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia: President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Saudi Prince Saun Al Faisal al Saud, among others.
The world's unemployed and impoverished may get short shrift at this summit, though activist groups are pleading with leaders to join forces to tackle corruption and tax-avoiding corporations, in hopes that stabilizes and better distributes economic growth.
Here's a look at what's happening at the two-day summit of the G-20, nations that represent two-thirds of the world's population, 85 percent of its GDP and its leading armies:
Western bombs are unlikely to fall on Syrian government targets during this gathering. The U.S. and French presidents are readying possible military strikes over what they say was a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad's army, but both are waiting for the U.S. Congress to weigh in first.
In the meantime, Obama and Hollande came under pressure and criticism Thursday from opponents of intervention, as China and EU leaders urged restraint. The U.N.'s Ban is pressing for diplomatic action.
Putin, on his own turf and looking strong in the face of Western hesitancy to tangle militarily with the Russia-backed Assad, told The Associated Press this week that any one-sided intervention would be rash. But he said he doesn't exclude supporting U.N. action – if it's proven that the Syrian government used poison gas on its own people. And China is among those warning at this summit that oil price volatility resulting from an international Syria war could threaten global economic recovery.
US-RUSSIA BODY LANGUAGE
Even without Syria, Obama and Putin had plenty to disagree about.
Obama snubbed the Russian leader, cancelling a one-on-one meeting over lack of progress on other issues too – including Russia's harboring of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who exposed U.S. surveillance of emails and phone calls of Americans and foreigners. The U.S. also strongly opposes arrests of political opponents and a new law against gay "propaganda."
Body language may be key to understanding where the U.S.-Russia relationship is going. The two leaders shook hands as the summit opened, but Obama's face was stern as he watched Putin open the G-20 talks. Will they relax and make small talk over over dinner at Peter the Great's resplendent Peterhof Palace? Will other leaders take sides?
The goal of some leaders at this G-20 is to get major cross-border companies such as Google and Starbucks paying more taxes instead of using loopholes and tax havens.
Laudable to the general public, it's complicated both practically and politically. It would require cracking down on well-connected companies registered in Delaware or the Virgin Islands, for example.
But if any forum can tackle this, it's the G-20, with all the major government decision-makers at the table. Some leaders also want to rein in so-called shadow banking and regulate hedge funds more.
FED UP WITH THE FED
The developing economies whose vigorous growth helped the world economy survive the financial market meltdown five years ago are now starting to falter. And they're placing part of the blame on the U.S. Federal Reserve's expected moves to wind down stimulus measures. China and Russia started off the summit by warning the U.S. to consider international fallout as they set monetary policy.
That expectation has pushed up long-term U.S. interest rates, which has in turn led investors to pull out of developing countries and invest in U.S. assets instead. The leaders of Russia and Brazil and others may appeal for the U.S. to coordinate with other governments when it changes financial policy.
With Russia set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in five months, this summit is THE place for other leaders to pressure Putin to open up his country and himself to criticism, opposition and public debate.
Activists want pressure against Russia's gay propaganda law, a law banning adoptions by Americans, and legal cases targeting Putin opponents. The Russian leader, for his part, wants global recognition, and revenue, from these games.
Also on HuffPost:
April 29, 2011
United States slaps sanctions on Syria's intelligence agency and two relatives of President Bashar al-Assad, in Washington's first concrete steps in response to a crackdown on anti-government protests inspired by the "Arab Spring." <em>Pro-Syrian regime protesters gather during a protest against sanctions, in Damascus, Syria, on Friday Dec. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)</em>
Aug. 18, 2011
For the first time, Obama calls for Assad to step down, saying: "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." Britain, France and Germany also call for Assad to go. <em>U.S. President Barack Obama leaves the Oval Office as he walks to Marine One prior to departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 18, 2011. Obama led a chorus of calls by world leaders for Syria's president to step down, as the United Nations warned his regime could be guilty of crimes against humanity. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
July 19, 2012
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice calls the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria "dangerous and deplorable." <em>Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, left, thanks a member of the Chinese UN delegation as China's UN Ambassador Li Baodong, second from right, and Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin look on, after a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations in New York, Thursday, July 19, 2012. Russia and China vetoed a United Nations resolution to impose non-military sanctions on Syria. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)</em>
July 23, 2012
Obama says Assad will be held accountable if he makes the "tragic mistake" of using Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. <em>This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Tuesday, July 24, 2012, shows bodies of Syrians killed during their funeral procession in the suburb of Daraya, Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>
July 23, 2012
Syria says it could use chemical weapons in response to any "external aggression" but they will not be used in Assad's campaign to crush the uprising in what appeared to be the first time that Syria acknowledges it might possess non-conventional weapons. <em>In this June 3, 2012 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad delivers a speech at the parliament in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA, File)</em>
Aug. 20, 2012
Obama warns Assad that the use or deployment of chemical or biological weapons in his country's conflict would be a "red line" for the United States. "A red line for us is (if) we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized. That would change my calculus," he tells reporters. <em>U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Briefing Room of the White House Aug. 20, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Dec. 3, 2012
Obama warns Assad "the world is watching" and there would be consequences if he uses chemical weapons against Syrian opposition forces. "The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," he says in a speech to a gathering of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons proliferation experts. <em>U.S. President Barack Obama greets members of the military and military community after speaking during the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) symposium at the National Defense University in Washington on December 3, 2012. Obama directly warned Syria's President Bashar al-Assad that he would face 'consequences' if he made the 'tragic mistake' of turning chemical weapons on his own people. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
March 19, 2013
Syria's government and rebels accuse each other of launching a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo in what would be the first use of such weapons in the two-year conflict. <em>In this Tuesday March 19, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors, at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA, File)</em>
April 26, 2013
Obama warns Assad that any use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war would be a "game changer" but remains cautious about endorsing intelligence assessments that such weapons had been deployed. <em>This citizen journalism image taken on Thursday, April 25, 2013 and provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a wounded Syrian man holding his injured son after an air raid on the northwestern town of Saraqeb in the province of Idlib, Syria. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)</em>
June 8, 2013
Syrian government troops backed by guerrillas from Lebanon's Hezbollah seize the western village of Buwayda to end rebel resistance around the strategically important town of Qusair in a success for Assad forces. The involvement of Iran-sponsored Hezbollah and gains by Syrian forces prompt renewed U.S. debate on arming Assad's opponents. <em>In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a placard with a caricature on it against Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, top left, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, top right, and U.S. President Barack Obama, below, during a demonstration at Kafr Nabil town in Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday, June 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)</em>
June 13, 2013
After two months of caution about reports Syria used chemical weapons, the White House says U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Assad's forces indeed used such weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times, killing 100 to 150 people. The White House vows to increase military aid to the Syrian rebels. <em>U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House on June 16, 2013. Obama heads to Belfast for the G8 summit where he will meet Russia's Vladimir Putin on June 17 for potentially vexatious talks, as both leaders now offer open military backing to rival sides in Syria's civil war. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug. 21, 2013
Syria's opposition accuses government forces of gassing hundreds of people by firing rockets that released deadly fumes over rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus, killing men, women and children as they slept. If confirmed, it would be the worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years. <em>This Aug. 21, 2013, file citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens receiving treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen, File)</em>
Aug. 26, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry says all nations must stand up for accountability on the "undeniable" use of chemical weapons in Syria, where he said the government maintained custody of such weapons. "Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity." <em>An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube by the Local Committee of Arbeen on Aug. 21, 2013 allegedly shows Syrians covering a mass grave containing bodies of victims that Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta and Zamalka, on the outskirts of Damascus. DSK/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug. 30, 2013
In separate statements, Obama and Kerry harshly condemn the Syrian government, saying the Aug 21. attack cannot go unpunished. Obama says: "We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale," while Kerry calls Assad "a thug and a murderer." But they say any military response by the United States would be measured to avoid open-ended commitments. <em>U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the situation in Syria from the Treaty Room at the State Department in Washington, DC on August 30, 2013. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug. 30, 2013
U.S. intelligence agencies publicly disclose some of the information that led to a "high-confidence" assessment that the government of Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack on neighborhoods outside Damascus, causing the deaths of an estimated 1,429 Syrians on Aug. 21. <em>In this August 1, 2013, file photo, posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, purports to show Syrian President Bashar Assad talking with soldiers with during Syrian Arab Army day in Darya, Syria. (AP Photo/Syrian Presidency via Facebook, File)</em>
Aug. 31, 2013
Obama says he had authorized the use of military force to punish Syria, with military assets to carry out a strike in place and ready to move on his order, but he would first seek authorization from Congress. "Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move as one nation," he said. <em>U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Syria from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, on August 31, 2013, with Vice President Joe Biden. Obama said Saturday he will ask the U.S. Congress to authorize military action against Syria, lifting the threat of immediate strikes on President Bashar al-Assad's regime. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>