Syria Spat Putin Plays Stubborn Host to Obama at G-20

Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to budge at the G-20 summit on Thursday in his rejection of President Obama's plans for a military strike on Syria. The two countries, it became clear over dinner in St. Petersburg, are as estranged as ever.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets US President Barack Obama on Thursday in St. Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets US President Barack Obama on Thursday in St. Petersburg.

It was just after 5 p.m. when the black Cadillac from the US arrived at the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg. Host Vladimir Putin was waiting to receive his guest, US President Barack Obama. Their greeting lasted but a few seconds, but Obama was careful to smile broadly for the cameras, and Putin smiled too. The pair are political professionals after all.

Later, though, the grins were nowhere to be found. Obama, the Associated Press wrote ahead of the G-20 summit in Putin's hometown, was visiting "the lion's den of Russia." And he came with a clear mission: He wanted to generate international support for a military strike against Syria. Putin, though, was intent on preventing exactly that.

As such, an impasse seemed unavoidable as the leaders from the world's 20 most important industrial and developing economies sat down to dinner in Peterhof Palace. Just prior the start of the summit, Putin announced that Syria would be discussed at dinner after all, contrary to the official agenda, which had foreseen an exchange of ideas on sustainable economic development. The change seemed to reflect the Russian president's certainty that he would not be backed into a corner during such a discussion; the majority of those present shared his skepticism of a military strike in Syria.

Dinner began an hour late and lasted for four hours, until well past midnight. Afterwards, there was a fireworks show and a concert ("La Traviata" from Giuseppe Verdi), but harmony was nowhere to be found. "The G-20 has just now finished the dinner session at which the divisions about Syria were confirmed," wrote Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta in a tweet.

Obama argued once again in favor of a limited strike on Syria to penalize the regime of President Bashar Assad for the poison gas attack on Aug. 21 which killed over 1,400 people. For days, the US president has been insisting that the blatant violation of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention cannot go unpunished. Washington believes that a one-time strike is both appropriate and necessary -- and vital for the credibility of the international community.

Immune to Such Arguments

Putin, however, once again proved immune to such arguments. He continues to profess his doubts that his ally Assad was behind the poison gas attacks. Moscow insists that it isn't "logical," saying that there is no military reason for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons. And Putin has been quick to disregard the evidence presented by the US, Britain, France and Germany, saying it wasn't substantive and that the Syrian rebels could just as easily be behind the attack.

St. Petersburg was once built by Peter the Great as a symbol of Russia's opening to the West. But on Thursday evening, it became the stage for yet another battle for supremacy between Washington and Moscow.

In this particular power struggle, most observers on the eve of the G-20 appeared to be on the side of the Kremlin. Pope Francis sent a letter demanding that a political solution be found to the Syrian conflict. Then China emphasized its opposition to a military strike, with Deputy Foreign Minister Zhu Guangyao saying that it would drive up the price of oil and endanger the global economy. Beijing's position was hardly a surprise; China has joined Russia in preventing several resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. But Putin's plan to isolate Obama seems to have worked.

During Thursday night's dinner, it became clear that, while all of those present condemn the use of poison gas, none of them seemed inclined to do anything about it. At the same time, though, few appeared interested in preventing the US from going it alone. Participants said that most believed an attack rested solely in the hands of the US Congress.

Meanwhile, the real arrows in the diplomatic battle between the two were being fired far away from St. Petersburg. In New York, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samatha Power made withering comments about Russia's role on the world stage on Thursday. Indicating that the US was prepared to move ahead without a Security Council resolution, she said that "Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities."

'Nail in the Coffin'

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats have accused the US of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and reject the idea of staging a military invention on the basis of humanitarian reasons. A US attack on Syria, said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Kremlin-funded international broadcaster Russia Today, would lead to "a total destabilization of the region." He said that an intervention without a UN mandate would be "another nail in the coffin of international law and international relations."

The fact that Obama plans on meeting with regime critics and gay and lesbian activists following the summit is seen as a provocation among Moscow's power elite. "In order to solve … the Syrian conflict, Obama should have turned to Russian with a request for cooperation," wrote the Russian paper Izvestia. "Instead he has only uttered nonsense about Russia in recent months and presented us as a regime from the Middle Ages ruled by a despot." Instead of focusing seriously on Syria, the paper wrote, Obama prefers to meet with gays.

Washington, for its part, has accused the Kremlin of rejecting every possible joint solution in the UN Security Council. Even the Syrian peace conference, which had originally been planned for summer, ultimately failed because Moscow has refused to back away from Assad. Putin's repudiation of evidence for Assad's complicity in the poison gas attack offered by Western intelligence agencies is seen in Washington as a cynical denial of reality. Moscow's claim that the rebels may have been responsible is completely "implausible," say Obama's advisors.

On the Line

On Thursday night, the discussion in Petershof Palace did little to break through this deadlock. Those opposed to a strike without a UN mandate were clearly in the majority. The Europeans were split. All EU countries believe that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished, but neither Germany nor Great Britain want to participate in a strike. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron both emphasized the need for a political solution in St. Petersburg on Thursday night. Only France has unconditionally sided with Obama, along with Australia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Russian broadcaster Rossiya closed its report from the first day of the G-20 by saying pathetically: "It will become clear as early as tomorrow evening whether the world's leading powers will adhere to international law or whether they will go separate ways."

Obama's perception of Russia, in any case, isn't likely to change. Even before he took off on his way to Europe, he said that US relations with Russia had "hit a wall."

The president, though, has more than just Russia to worry about when it comes to formulating a response to Syria. There is plenty of disagreement back at home too. To be sure, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the green light for a military strike on Wednesday, and top Republicans and Democrats are supportive. But Obama is still battling for reliable majorities in the two houses of Congress. When Congress votes next week, Obama's credibility will be on the line.

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author 09/06/2013
1. Syria strike
Putin is right on this occasion. Don't interfere because neither Assad or the thugs that oppose him deserve help.
miladybug72 09/06/2013
2. Syria and Enemy Combatants
If the U.S. catches enemy combatants in Syria, will they go to Gitmo to then face indefinate incarceration?
Jim in MD 09/06/2013
3. Politics is about Interests
Despite Obama keeping missiles out of Eastern Europe and so on, Russia sees its interests in Syria and Iran. The US ultimately has an interest in stopping proliferation of non-conventional weapons, which are tempting to terrorists. The world should punish Assad rather than helping his opponents, as proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons threatens us all. Unfortunately, Russia/Iran and Saudi Arabia/Qatar already are deep into the sectarian war there. Ignoring it won't make it go away.
anthonybellchambers 09/06/2013
4. Use of chemical weapons against civilians is a war crime
Listening to the impassioned pleas at the G20 conference today of both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron against the use of chemical weapons, it is inexplicable why they were both so silent when the Israeli army used white phosphorus AS A CHEMICAL WEAPON in Gaza, in 2008/9, when according to the UNHRC over 300 children under the age of 16 were killed by the IDF. No legal or other action has been taken to date against Israel for what was clearly a war crime that violated the Geneva Conventions. Yet, it is now that very state, and its American lobby, AIPAC, that is driving the clamour for a cruise missile strike against Syria. Let the world see both Syria and Israel brought before the International Criminal Court for war crimes against civilian populations.
m.cusumano 09/06/2013
Is this supposed to be a news report or a commentary? Why the very obvious transparent bias? Using the words "pathetic" to describe reasonable comments about international law clearly demonstrates that Der Spiegel is promoting the U.S.'s decision to commit acts of war against the sovereign state of Syria. The Spiegel doesn't bother to provide any references to its assertion that 1,400 people were killed. Doctors without Borders says it was around 350. The "rebels" say it was 1,100. Other journalists have put it at around 400, and Nato claims 800. Only the Obama administration has said 1,400. The gas attack committed on the 19th of March was proven to be a "rebel" attack. Russia has submitted a 100 page report proving, by independent laboratories (the same laboratories in Europe that the UN Chemical weapons team uses) that the "rebels" used chemical weapons (Sarin) in Khan Al Asal on March 19th, 2013. Yet the Spiegel and the Obama administration have suddenly started to say that it was Assad who used the gas (to attack his own troops? the victims of the March 19th gas attack were all government troops!)
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