ST. PETERSBURG, Russia: U.S. President Barack Obama faced growing pressure from world leaders Thursday not to launch military strikes in Syria at a summit on the global economy that was hijacked by the conflict.
The Group of 20 (G-20) developed and developing economies met in St. Petersburg to try and forge a united front on how to revive economic growth, but failed to heal divisions over a U.S. plan to wind down a program to stimulate the world economy.
The club that accounts for two thirds of the world’s population and 90 percent of its output looked as divided over therapy for the economy as it is over possible military action following a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Obama arrived in Russia’s former imperial capital with a showdown looming at a dinner hosted by President Vladimir Putin, with a debate on Syria the main course on the menu.
Obama wore a stiff smile as he approached Putin and grasped his hand. Putin also wore a businesslike expression and it was only when they turned to pose for photographers that Obama broke into a broader grin. There was no clutching of arms or hugs.
The first round at the summit went to Putin, as China, the European Union, the BRICS emerging economies and Pope Francis – in a letter – warned of the dangers of military intervention without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
“Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price,” Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said. The BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – echoed that remark.
A political solution was the only way forward, another senior Chinese official said later, warning world powers to be “highly prudent” over the issue.
“War cannot solve the problem in Syria,” Chinese delegation spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at the G-20.
European Union leaders described the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus, which killed up to 1,400 people, as “abhorrent” but said: “There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.”
Obama is unlikely to be deterred. He said before talks with Japan’s prime minister on the sidelines of the summit that the use of chemical arms in Syria was “not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.”
Aides said he would set out his views at the leaders’ dinner and hoped to build support for military action, although aides acknowledge a consensus might be hard to find.
“We would not anticipate every member of the G-20 agreeing about the way forward in Syria, particularly given the Russian position over many, many months now in terms of resisting efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
Putin was isolated on Syria at a Group of Eight meeting in June, the last big summit of world powers, but could now turn the tables on Obama, who recently likened him to a “bored kid in the back of the classroom” who slouches at meetings.Only France, which has already said it is preparing to join U.S. military action, rallied loudly behind Obama.
“We are convinced that if there is no punishment for Mr. Assad, there will be no negotiation,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said before leaving for St. Petersburg.
With backing by Beijing and Moscow unlikely at the U.N. Security Council, where both have veto powers, Obama is seeking the approval of the U.S. Congress instead.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said there was “no viable path forward” in the Security Council on Syria because Russia was holding it hostage.
Samantha Power’s remarks appeared to leave no doubt that Washington would not seek U.N. approval for a military strike. She said a draft resolution Britain submitted to the five permanent council members last week calling for a response to that attack was effectively dead.
“I was present in the meeting where the U.K. laid down the resolution, and everything in that meeting, in word and in body language, suggests that that resolution has no prospect of being adopted, by Russia in particular,” she told reporters.
“Our considered view, after months of efforts on chemical weapons and after 2 1/2 years of efforts on Geneva [peace talks], the humanitarian situation, is that there is no viable path forward in this Security Council,” she said.
Putin says rebel forces may have carried out the poison gas attack and that any military strike without Security Council approval would violate international law, a view now being supported increasingly openly by others – including countries that have usually disagreed with Moscow on Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are also in St. Petersburg to push for diplomacy rather than military options, and support efforts to organize an international peace conference on Syria.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, portrayed the “camp of supporters of a strike on Syria” as divided, and said: “It is impossible to say that very many states support the idea of a military operation.”
Peskov also reiterated that the United States had failed to produce convincing proof that Assad, who is backed by Russian arms, and his forces had resorted to chemical warfare.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw no chance of agreement between Putin and Obama on Syria. U.S.-Russian ties have long been strained by political differences but went into free fall when Russia harbored Edward Snowden, a former spy agency contractor who leaked details of U.S. intelligence programs.
Any G-20 decision on Syria would not be binding but Putin would like to see a consensus to avert military action in what would be a significant – but unlikely – personal triumph.
Assad’s second key ally, Iran, said that the U.S. was using the chemical weapons attack as a pretext to interfere in the country and warned it would suffer loss from any intervention.
The country’s most powerful authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that, “In the case of Syria, the chemical attack is a pretext ... The Americans try to play with words and pretend that they’ve become involved in this case for humanitarian aims.”
Speaking to a meeting of the Assembly of Experts, a state body, Khamenei said: “I believe the Americans are making mistakes in Syria and they have felt the impact and will certainly suffer loss.”
Also Thursday, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said that Syrian opposition groups may meet again within four to six weeks.