President Barack Obama searched for diplomatic backing for a U.S. military strike on Syria while his aides in Washington sought to shore up domestic support.
Obama arrived today in St. Petersburg, Russia, and began meetings with other leaders of the Group of 20 nations, trying to persuade allies to give the U.S. a measure of political cover even if they withhold military support.
The G-20 host is Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who has cast doubts about U.S. evidence that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons and declared that any attack on Syria would violate international law. Putin also will lobby other leaders.
“We would not anticipate every member of the G-20 agreeing about the way forward in Syria, particularly given the Russian position,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters. Obama will seek to explain the U.S. position and explore with other leaders “what type of political and diplomatic support they may express for our efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable.”
The summit is opening a day after a U.S. Senate committee sent the administration a contradictory message on the next steps in Syria. It voted to constrain U.S. military action to avoid being drawn into the civil war and to expand covert support for Syrian rebels.
The 10-7 bipartisan vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the first test of Congress’s willingness to back American military action against the Syrian regime following what the U.S. says was its Aug. 21 use of sarin nerve gas that killed more than 1,400 people, many of them women and children, in an area near Damascus.
The vote authorized military action in a “limited and specified manner,” and said U.S. policy should aim to shift the battlefield “momentum” decisively against Syria’s government by providing weapons for rebel fighters. The measure is to be taken up next week by the full Senate.
Obama and the congressional leaders who have said they’ll support him have a balancing act between satisfying lawmakers who want assurance that the U.S. won’t slide into another Mideast war and those who want the U.S. to do more to help Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.
While in Sweden yesterday, Obama made five calls to senators from both parties about the Syria authorization, Rhodes said. He also canceled a planned two-day political trip to California on Sept. 9 and 10, when the full Congress formally returns to work and begins debate on a Syria authorization.
Obama and his national-security team have a tough sales job in the House of Representatives, where anti-Obama Republicans and antiwar Democrats may unite in an effort to block a resolution. The administration was providing a classified briefing to lawmakers this afternoon.
Sean Kay, director of the international studies program at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, said he sees “mission creep” in the Senate committee’s resolution.
“I don’t think there’s a way at the end of the day of squaring the circle, that there won’t be further commitments, with the mission that’s being added to the Senate authorization of degrading capabilities and lifting up rebels,” Kay said.
After the Senate panel vote oil prices crept up after having declined this week as the congressional debate delayed the prospect of another Western military engagement in the Middle East, which supplies about 35 percent of the world’s crude. West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery increased $1.06, or 1 percent, to $108.29 a barrel at 2:19 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices are up 18 percent this year.
Syria is dominating a summit with an official agenda focused on economic growth, monetary policy and global banking and tax rules.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Obama has a “Herculean task” in trying to get more countries to join in taking military action.
“It’s really, really difficult to build an international coalition on one track when you have great uncertainty over how Congress will respond,” she said.
If Congress doesn’t vote to authorize action within the next two weeks, Obama will “get to do this all over again” when he attends the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, Conley said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to discuss the confrontation with Syria over two days of meetings with European Union foreign ministers that begin tomorrow in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Obama’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power, today told other members of the Security Council in New York that Syria’s use of chemical weapons threatens the international system, while conceding there was little chance the world body would act.
“There is nothing in the pattern of our interactions with our Russian colleagues in the Security Council that would give us any reason to be optimistic,” Power said.
On the same day the full U.S. Congress returns to Washington to consider authorizing Obama to strike at Assad’s regime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plans to meet with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, the ministry announced in Moscow.
Obama met one-on-one today with Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, a U.S. ally. Amid their discussion on trade and boosting global economic growth, Obama said he planned to have “an extensive conversation about the situation in Syria.”
Syria also was a topic when Abe met with his counterparts from Argentina and the U.K., Kuni Sato, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters.
Among Obama’s other individual meetings will be a discussion tomorrow with French President Francois Hollande, who may be the only U.S. ally taking part in a strike against Syria. The U.K. dropped out after the House of Commons last week blocked Prime Minister David Cameron from committing military forces.
The U.S. president has no private discussion planned with Putin. Rhodes left open the possibility of an informal talk.
“It’s always the case at these summits that leaders end up sitting next to each other,” Rhodes said. “They end up having side conversations.”
The two shook hands and chatted briefly at the formal arrival ceremony today.
Obama and Putin both will use the summit to discuss with the G-20 members their conflicting viewpoints on Syria, the Russian leader’s spokesman said today.
“There are divisions even among the supporters of a strike on Syria,” Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with Russian state broadcaster RT, according to a transcript. “In reality, the idea of a military operation doesn’t have the support of many states.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there’s probably no chance of reviving a move to get United Nations support for a military response in Syria because of the differences between Russia and the U.S. She said previously that Germany won’t join the U.S. in any strike.
“The points of view -- for instance, on who is responsible for using chemical weapons -- are very far apart,” she said in St. Petersburg.
Rhodes said the U.S. doesn’t need significant international participation to conduct the sort of military strike under consideration.
Obama also will lobby for more contributions to help the Syrian opposition, he said. France and Turkey have “expressed their interest” in increasing aid, along with other countries such as Saudi Arabia that are backing the rebels, he said.