ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama resisted pressure yesterday to abandon plans for air strikes 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 of the Group of Twenty developed and developing economies in St. Petersburg.
He persuaded nine other G20 nations plus Spain 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.
A senior U.S. official said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the only European leader at the summit who did not sign the statement, held off because she wanted to let the European Union have a chance to weigh in first.
Leaders of the G20, which accounts for 90 percent of the world economy and two-thirds of its population, put aside their differences to unite behind a call for growth and jobs and agreed the global economy was on the mend but not out of crisis. 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 on Friday, following a tense group discussion on the civil war over dinner late on 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 on Thursday night.
But he defended his call for a military response to what Washington says was a chemical weapons attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that 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. .
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 tried to dissuade Obama from military action during talks yesterday, 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 G20 leaders condemned the use of chemical weapons even if they disagreed whether to use force without going through the United Nations.
“The majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that Assad, the Assad government, was responsible for their use,” he said.
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.
The senior U.S. official said the statement had been worked out over the past two days and while there were changes to a draft produced by U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice, the final version had in it everything the United States wanted. A final chat at the summit between Obama and French President Francois Hollande sealed the deal, the official said.