ST. PETERSBURG/WASHINGTON/ BEIRUT: U.S. President Barack Obama resisted pressure Friday to abandon plans for airstrikes against Syria and enlisted the support of 10 fellow leaders for a “strong” response to a chemical weapons attack.
Obama refused to blink after Russian President Vladimir Putin led a campaign to talk him out of military intervention at a two-day summit in St. Petersburg of the Group of 20 developed and developing economies.
He persuaded 10 other G-20 nations to join the United States in signing a statement calling for a strong international response, although it fell short of supporting military strikes, underscoring the deep disagreements that dominated the summit.
Leaders of the G-20 put aside their differences to unite behind a call for growth and jobs but there was no joint statement on Syria, despite a 20-minute one-on-one talk between Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the summit Friday, following a tense group discussion on the civil war over dinner late Thursday.
“We hear one another, and understand the arguments, but we don’t agree. I don’t agree with his arguments, he doesn’t agree with mine,” Putin told a closing news conference dominated by questions about Syria.
Participants at the dinner said the tension between Putin and Obama was palpable but that they seemed at pains to avoid an escalation. Obama said credit was due to Putin for facilitating the long discussion of the Syrian crisis Thursday night.
But in a sign of deepening strain, Russian lawmakers canceled plans to travel to the U.S. to discuss the crisis with their American counterparts after congressional leaders refused to see them, the Russian ambassador to Washington said.
Obama defended his call for a military response to what Washington says was a chemical weapons attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad which killed more than 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
“Failing to respond to this breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations, that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction and not pay a consequence. And that’s not the world that we want to live in,” Obama told a separate news conference.
Later, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said Assad had barely dented his stockpile of chemical weapons in the alleged attack and that “we have exhausted the alternatives” to military action.
“We assess that although Assad used more chemical weapons on Aug. 21 than he had before, he has barely put a dent in his enormous stockpile,” she said at the Center for American Progress think tank, adding that Assad must have weighed the fact that Russia would back him in the controversy over his alleged use of chemical weapons and it was naive to think Russia would change.
Putin said Washington had not provided convincing proof that Assad’s troops carried out the attack and called it a “provocation” by rebel forces hoping to encourage a military response by the United States.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also tried to dissuade Obama from military action during talks Friday, telling him that Beijing expected countries to think twice before acting. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned against military action that did not have the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
Unable to win Security Council backing because of the opposition by veto-wielding Russia and China, Obama is seeking the support of the U.S. Congress instead.
He declined to speculate whether he would go ahead with a military strike in Syria if Congress opposed it but said most G-20 leaders condemned the use of chemical weapons even if they disagreed whether to use force without going through the U.N.
“The majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that Assad, the Assad government, was responsible for their use,” he said.
Obama also faces an uphill battle at home, where he plans to discuss Syria in an address to the American public Tuesday. “I was elected to end wars, not start them,” he said.
“I’ve spent the last four-and-a-half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people.
“But what I also know is that there are times where we have to make hard choices if we’re going to stand up for the things that we care about. And I believe that this is one of those times.”
Those who signed up to the call for a strong international response were the leaders or other representatives of Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, Britain and the United States. All but Spain are members of the G-20.
Washington’s Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power made clear Thursday that the United States had given up trying to work with the Council on the issue, and accused Russia of holding it hostage.
French President Francois Hollande, who supports Obama over military action against Syria, said he would try to bring together a coalition of states in favor of such an intervention if the U.N. Security Council could not agree action.
France tried to rally support from its European Union partners Friday but met skepticism from governments wary of turning their backs on the U.N.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sought agreement from EU counterparts meeting in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius but he was rebuffed by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and other ministers who said countries contemplating military action must await the findings of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors, which could take weeks.