SAINT-PETERSBURG (AFP) – President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were Thursday set to argue out their differences on the Syria crisis over dinner at the G20 in Russia as world leaders sought to overcome a deep chasm over a U.S.-led push for military action.
Obama prepared to argue his case for punitive strikes against Syria over the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, as Russia stood firm in its fierce opposition.
As tensions over the Syrian conflict threatened to torpedo the work plan of the G20, Putin made a last minute announcement for participants to air their views over dinner.
Pleas for Washington to step back from a war path grew louder, with China, the United Nations and even the pope chiming in.
In a new bid for a peaceful solution for Syria, the UN announced that its special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was on his way to attend the summit to push for peace talks.
Russia meanwhile said Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would travel to Moscow on Monday, the same day Congress is expected to vote on proposed western military action.
Putin and Obama put on a show of smiles for the cameras as they shook hands just before the summit got under way on the shores of the Gulf of Finland at a former Imperial palace outside Saint Petersburg.
Despite the cordial showing alongside his host Putin, a vocal backer of the Syrian regime, Obama was due to argue his case for military action against Syria, a U.S. official said.
Obama would seek to explore what type of “political and diplomatic support they may express for our efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable,” the official added.
Syria’s allies remained unmoved by Obama’s push, with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling allegations of an August 21 chemical weapons attack by the regime a “pretext” to launch strikes against the country, and pledging to support Damascus “until the end.”
On the eve of the summit, 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 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.
A political solution is the only way to end the Syria crisis, a senior Chinese official said on Thursday, warning world powers to be “highly prudent” over the issue.
“War cannot solve the problem in Syria,” Chinese delegation spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at the G20.
Pope Francis added his voice to the calls for a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis, warning against “futile pursuit of a military solution.”
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.
EU president Herman van Rompuy said while the Damascus chemical attack was “a crime against humanity” there is “no military solution to the Syrian conflict.”
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.
While no formal bilateral sit-down meeting is planned between Obama and Putin, a White House official suggested there would likely be some kind of more informal conversation.
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 American 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.