SAINT-PETERSBURG (AFP) – President Barack Obama arrived Thursday in Russia for the G20 summit seeking to overcome bitter opposition led by his host Vladimir Putin over his push for military action against the Syrian regime.
With pressure mounting on the G20 to make concrete progress towards ending the conflict, the United Nations announced that its special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was on his way to attend the summit to push for peace talks.
The UN’s desperate bid for peace talks came after Obama cleared the first hurdle in his race to win domestic congressional backing for punitive strikes over the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He is also seeking broader international support.
Syria’s allies remained unmoved by Obama’s push, with Iran calling allegations of a August 21 chemical weapons attack by the regime a “pretext” to launch strikes against the country, and pledging to support Damascus “until the end.”
The United States and their allies “are using the chemical weapon [allegation] as a pretext,” and “are saying that they want to intervene for humanitarian reasons,” said Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On the eve of the summit, Russian President Putin bluntly warned the West that any military action without UN Security Council approval would be an “aggression” and once again demanded watertight proof of chemical weapons use.
According to U.S. intelligence, more than 1,400 people living in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were killed in the strike, which involved the use of the sarin nerve gas.
Beyond convincing Russia, Obama has a tough sell ahead elsewhere, with China — another veto-wielding Security Council member state — having already expressed its “grave concerns” over unilateral military strikes.
In Saint Petersburg, Vice Minister of Finance Zhu Guangyao emphasized that “China believes that only a political solution… is the way to solve the Syria problem,” and warned of a negative impact on the world economy in case of military action.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly ruled out her country’s participation in any U.S.-led military strike against Assad’s regime, while the British parliament has also rejected the idea.
But Obama said in Sweden on Wednesday before heading to Russia: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” referring to international rules banning the use of chemical weapons, even in case of war.
The Syria conflict has not even been formally penciled into the agenda of the G20 summit on the shores of the Gulf of Finland at a former Imperial palace outside Saint Petersburg.
But discussions about the Syria crisis still threaten to completely overshadow leaders’ efforts to promote a crucial economic agenda of stimulating growth and cracking down on tax avoidance.
UN Arab-League envoy Brahimi is on his way to Saint Petersburg to help Secretary General Ban Ki-moon push at the G20 summit for an international peace conference on Syria first proposed by the United States and Russia in May, the UN spokesperson said.
“While the world is focused on concerns about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria we must push even harder for the International Conference on Syria to take place in Geneva,” the spokesperson quoted Ban as saying.
The U.S.-Russia push for peace talks has languished as ties between the two world powers sank to a new post-Cold War low over deep divisions on Syria, Russia’s granting of asylum to American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden and a string of hardline Russian laws.
Obama, whose Air Force One jet touched down in Saint Petersburg early Wednesday afternoon, will hold meetings on the sidelines of the G20 with French President Francois Hollande, the main foreign backer of a strike on Syria, as well as the leaders of China and Japan.
While no formal bilateral sit-down meeting is planned with Putin, a White House official suggested there would likely be some kind of more informal conversation.
In face of possible strikes, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told AFP that his government was ready to retaliate in case of foreign military action and the regime will “not change position even if there is World War III.”
International aid agency Oxfam called on the G20 to overcome their differences on Syria saying: “The timing of this G20 is critical. Leaders in St Petersburg must not let ordinary Syrians down.”
Western military action against Syria had looked imminent last week, but Obama deferred the move and is seeking congressional backing in a vote scheduled for next Monday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday gave its backing by a 10-7 vote for the use of force. Senate leaders said the full chamber will vote next week on the motion, when Obama is expected to carry the day.
The amended resolution authorises military intervention with a 90-day deadline and bars U.S. boots on the ground for combat purposes.
The House of Representatives will also begin its deliberations next week.
Since British lawmakers voted down a bid for strikes against the regime, Washington has found a firm partner in France.
Now in its third year, the popular uprising against the Assad regime has cost more than 100,000 lives.
With the number of Syrian refugees pushing past two million, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos arrived in Damascus on Thursday for talks with government officials.