SAINT PETERSBURG (AFP) – World leaders at the G20 summit on Friday failed to bridge their bitter divisions over U.S. plans for military action against the Syrian regime, with Washington signalling that it has given up on securing Russia’s support at the U.N. on the crisis.
A dinner hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin that ran on into the early hours of the morning failed to win a breakthrough on how to halt a conflict in Syria that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and which is now in its third year.
Putin has emerged as one of the most implacable critics of military intervention against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over an alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21, saying any such move without U.N. blessing would be an aggression.
On Thursday, the United States said it has come to terms with the fact that no deal could emerge despite repeated attempts at persuading Syria’s key ally Russia, signalling that it would take punitive action against Assad’s regime without the U.N. Security Council’s backing.
“What we’ve repeatedly seen is Russia refusing to take action to… (hold) the Assad regime accountable and again seeking to work through different processes to avoid the core issues,” said Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.
“We can’t have an endless process at the U.N. Security Council that doesn’t lead to anything,” he said.
Russia and China — both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — have on three occasions voted down resolutions that would have put pressure on Assad.
Rhodes also slapped down Russian lawmakers’ plans to visit Washington to persuade Congress not to approve Obama’s plans for strikes against Syria, saying Russia has nothing more to contribute.
“I don’t know that the Russians have anything to add to the debate in the United States given that we know where Russia stands on this issue,” said Rhodes.
At Thursday’s dinner, leaders, including Obama, presented their positions on the Syria crisis which only confirmed the extent of global divisions on the issue, participants said.
“The differences of opinions of the leaders were confirmed during the dinner,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
“Some states were defending the view that rushed measures should be taken, overlooking legitimate international institutions. Other states appealed not to devalue international law and not to forget that only the U.N. Security Council has the right to decide on using force,” he added.
A high-ranking source close to the talks said there was a disappointing lack of ambition at the dinner on the Syria issue, noting that Putin as host was keen not to aggravate tensions further.
The dinner went on into the small hours of the morning and even after a late-night opera show Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron had a meeting to discuss the Syria situation, the Kremlin said.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Friday also warned that military strikes could spark further sectarian violence in the country which he said is suffering from a humanitarian crisis “unprecedented” in recent history.
“I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence,” Ban said.
About a third of Syria’s pre-war 20.8 million population has fled abroad or been displaced, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
The Russian foreign ministry also strongly warned the United States against targeting Syria’s chemical arsenal in any attacks.
The Syria crisis and prospect of military intervention has overshadowed the official agenda of the two-day summit of leaders of the world’s top economies and emerging markets to stimulate growth and battle tax avoidance.
It appeared unlikely that the leaders would formally again discuss Syria as a group during the summit that ends Friday.
Several Western states share Putin’s opposition to military action and after the British parliament voted against strikes, France is the only power to have vowed it will join American intervention.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP that EU top diplomats should unanimously condemn the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons at their meeting in Vilnius.
Obama is seeking backing from Congress for military action, putting back the timetable for strikes which had been anticipated even before the summit got underway.
The U.S. president held a bilateral meeting Friday morning with President Xi Jinping of China, who like Russia vehemently opposes military action against Syria.
Amid a new low in U.S.-Russia tensions, no bilateral meeting was scheduled between Putin and Obama although officials have left the door open for some informal contact.
According to U.S. intelligence, more than 1,400 people living in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were killed in the August 21 chemical weapons attack, which involved the use of sarin nerve gas.
The U.S. says the Assad regime was responsible, a claim not accepted by Russia.
With the clock ticking down to strikes, Russia said Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would travel to Moscow for talks on Monday.
Photo Credit: AFP/Jewel Samad