Obama encouraged by G-20 Syria talks, plans address to American people
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA (AP) - United States President Barack Obama claimed a growing recognition among foreign leaders on Friday that "the world cannot stand idly by" in the face of chemical weapons use in Syria, and said he plans to make his case to the American people in an address on Tuesday night.
With Congress showing signs of reluctance to back a resolution authorising military strikes, Mr Obama refused to say whether he would act if he fails to win that approval.
"It would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I'm working to get as much support as possible out of Congress," he said.
Mr Obama told reporters at the end of a two-day Group of 20 (G-20) economic summit that he and other leaders had had a "full airing of views on the issue". He said many foreign nations will be issuing statements on their positions, but he did not say whether any specifically had joined France in supporting his move toward US military strikes.
He said the leaders are unanimous in believing that chemical weapons were used in Syria, and that international norms against that use must be maintained. He said division comes over how to proceed through the United Nations.
Mr Obama also held a surprise meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a chief opponent of US military action. Mr Putin, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said this discussion with Mr Obama focused on Syria during the 20 to 30 minutes and that, while they disagreed, the meeting was "substantial and constructive".
Mr Obama said he had a "candid and constructive conversation" with Mr Putin, even if they still disagreed on how to respond to the chemical weapons use in Syria. He said they agreed the underlying conflict can only be resolved through a political transition. Mr Obama said he thinks it is important that he and Mr Putin work together to urge all sides in the conflict to try to resolve it.
The meeting came on Friday as Mr Obama sought to build international backing for military action. But three days after he left Washington, it is unclear whether the global coalition the President has been seeking is any closer to becoming a reality.
Putting up stiff resistance to Mr Obama's appeals, Russia on Friday warned the US and its allies against striking any chemical weapon storage facilities in Syria. The Russian foreign ministry said such targeting could release toxic chemicals and give militants or terrorist access to chemical weapons.
"This is a step toward proliferation of chemical weapons not only across the Syrian territory but beyond its borders," the Russian statement said.
Moreover, China remained a firm no. The European Union is sceptical about whether any military action can be effective. Even Pope Francis weighed in, urging leaders gathered here to abandon what he called a "futile mission".
Still, Mr Obama was undeterred. He and French President Francois Hollande, the US' strongest ally on Syria and a vocal advocate for a military intervention, met on the sidelines of the summit about attracting European support for action. "It's clear that there are many countries that agree with us that international norms must be upheld," Mr Obama said.
Mr Hollande told reporters invited into their meeting that they came to summit "wanting as large a coalition as possible", but without saying whether they picked up more support for military intervention.
"To do nothing would mean impunity," Mr Hollande said. "We must take our responsibility" and act.
As the President pressed his case on the world stage, he was dispatching his UN Ambassador Samantha Power to a Washington think tank to argue that the global community cannot afford the precedent of letting chemical weapons use go unpunished.
Yet, even as Mr Obama sought the global buy-in that could legitimise a potential strike, his aides were careful to temper expectations that the world community could speak with one voice.
Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser, Mr Ben Rhodes, said the President was not asking his peers to pledge their own militaries to a US-led strike, but simply to say they agree a military response is warranted.
"We don't expect every country here to agree with that position," Mr Rhodes said.
Standing on Russian soil, Mr Rhodes suggested the US had given up hope that Russia - a stalwart Syria ally - could be coerced into changing its position. "We don't expect to have Russian cooperation," he said.