President Barack Obama acknowledged domestic and international resistance to his call for a military strike against Syria and said he’ll make a more detailed case for action in an address to the U.S. public next week.
Obama today left a summit of leaders from the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, without gaining a clear, unified message of support, even as he said there is “growing recognition” that the world can’t stand by and let the use of chemical weapons go unanswered.
“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,” Obama said during a news conference at the close of the G-20 summit.
He plans to deliver his speech on the issue on the evening of Sept. 10 from the White House.
One of the biggest hurdles to Obama’s efforts has been opposition from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally. Putin has questioned U.S. evidence that the Syrian government was behind a chemical weapons attack last month and has blocked action against Syria at the United Nations.
At his own news conference today, Putin said Russia will continue supporting Syria if the U.S. launches a strike. “We are already helping them with weapons and we are cooperating in the economic and humanitarian spheres,” Putin said.
The comments by Putin prompted the biggest swing in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index since June. The U.S. equity benchmark ended little changed at 1,655.17 after retreating as much as 0.9 percent and gaining 0.6 percent. West Texas Intermediate crude rose $2.16 to $110.53 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a two-year. About 35 percent of the world’s crude is supplied by producers in the Middle East.
While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov previously indicated his country has no intention of engaging militarily in the conflict, both Russia and the U.S. have beefed up their naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria.
Obama and Putin held an unscheduled meeting earlier today to discuss their differences on the use of chemical weapons in Syria as well as the need to move ahead on a political solution to that country’s civil war, which has left more than 100,000 dead over the past 2 1/2 years.
The two spoke for 20-30 minutes after Putin approached Obama during a break in the formal morning session of the G-20, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Syria also dominated the talk last night at a dinner for the G-20 leaders and overshadowed a summit agenda on the global economy and tax policy.
Among the leaders at the G-20 meeting, a majority is “comfortable” with the U.S. conclusion that Assad’s regime is responsible for the Aug. 21 attack on civilians in an area near Damascus using sarin gas, Obama said.
“My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons,” Obama said. “I’m not itching for military action.”
The administration released a joint statement with the U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Spain calling for a “strong international response” to the chemical weapons attack east of Damascus.
The signatories said they support “efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons,” without being specific, said the administration official, who briefed reporters aboard Air Force One.
U.S. allies Germany, Mexico and the European Union didn’t join in the statement.
So far, only France has indicated willingness to go along with an armed response. French President Francois Hollande said his nation’s military would only hit targets in Syria in a U.S.- led coalition.
“A military strike would accelerate a political solution, that’s what people have to understand,” Hollande said at a news conference at the G-20 site. If Obama fails to get authorization for a military attack from the U.S. Congress, Hollande said he’s willing to ship weapons to Syrian rebels.
Ariel Cohen, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, a policy institute in Washington, said Obama left the G-20 without the expression of broad backing he sought and without softening Putin’s stance.
“While some countries may still come to America’s side, we are lacking the broad international support necessary for this action’s legitimacy,” Cohen said. UN support is off the table because of Russia’s “implacable” opposition, while Obama also has a difficult sell in Congress, he said. “Popular support is lacking as the nation is battle weary.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left today for a meeting with European Union foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania and talks with representatives of the Arab League in Paris. He also made calls to members to members Congress, as did Vice President Joe Biden.
A leader of Syrian rebel forces expressed his skepticism that Obama will gain approval for military action.
“So far we are waiting for the Congress voting, like the rest of the world, but indications so far say Congress probably won’t approve the strike,” General Salim Idriss, head of the supreme military command of the opposition’s Free Syrian Army, told al-Arabiya television in an interview.
“We in the Syrian revolution hope that the Congress” accedes to Obama’s request, “as we need this military strike so we can get rid of Assad’s regime,” Idriss said.
Obama was returning tonight to Washington where he’ll continue pressing Congress to authorize a Syria attack. In his comments in St. Petersburg, he again stressed that any action would be “limited both in time and in scope.”
Obama three times declined to directly answer questions about whether he would take military action even if Congress turns down authorization.
“I put this before Congress for a reason,” Obama said, adding that the U.S. position is strengthened if the nation is unified. “I’m not going to engage in parlor games” by speculating, while he is still negotiating with lawmakers, about whether his request is going to pass.
The president said he’s aware of polls showing most of the U.S. public opposes an armed response to Syria and that he might not change many minds with his speech.
“It’s conceivable that at the end of the day, I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. It’s the job of lawmakers then to “make some decisions about what you believe is right for America.”
Virginia Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly, who supports taking action, said Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval is “tacit acknowledgment” that any military action requires authorization by lawmakers.
“I would not support the president going forward unilaterally at this time,” Connolly said on Bloomberg Television.
Obama, who was elected in 2008 promising to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, finds himself trying to sell a new military engagement with unpredictable consequences at a time when the U.S. public is war-weary.
U.S. lawmakers are asking questions about the size and cost of the military operation that Obama proposes. The reluctance of lawmakers and American allies is stretching the timeline for any military strike.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, filed a use-of-force resolution today. The full Senate may act by the end of next week. That would be followed by a vote in the House, where it isn’t clear whether leaders can overcome opposition from anti-Obama Republicans, antiwar Democrats and members of both parties who have expressed concerns about the U.S. being drawn into another Mideast war.
The delay created by seeking congressional authorization has set up a cat-and-mouse game in Syria, giving Assad time to disperse and hide troops and equipment as the Pentagon steps up surveillance to find targets for Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“Time works both ways,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Sept. 3 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “We have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities and we continue to refine our targets.”
Obama has ordered the Pentagon to put together an expanded list of possible targets in Syria in response to possible movements of troops by Assad’s regime, the New York Times reported.
The U.S. State Department warned Americans to avoid travel to Lebanon and began removing non-emergency personnel family members from the embassy in Beirut and an alert for those in Turkey. The embassy, on its website, cited unspecified threats to the U.S. mission and American personnel.
Separately, U.S. citizens living in or traveling to Turkey were warned that the consulate in Adana is removing non-emergency staff and family members because of threats to U.S. facilities.
“U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Turkey should be alert to the potential for violence,” the State Department advisory said.