BEIRUT/ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin failed Friday to end their bitter dispute over American plans for military action in Syria, as half of the Group of 20 economic powers called for a “strong” response to a chemical weapons attack blamed on the regime.
Obama said that the world could not “stand idly by” after the Syria chemical attack, but Putin warned that it would be “outside the law” to attack without the U.N.’s blessing.
Putin also said Russia would “help Syria” if the U.S. were to strike, pointing to existing military, economic and humanitarian cooperation. “Each of us kept with our own opinion,” said Putin, who has emerged as one of the most implacable critics of military intervention against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21.
Asked what Moscow would do if military action began against Syria, Putin said: “Will we help Syria? We will.”
The split among leaders of the world’s top emerging and developed countries over the issue was symbolized in a statement supported by 11 states at the G-20 summit calling for a “strong international response” to the chemical attack.
Without specifying military action, it said the response would “send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated.”
The signatories included U.S. allies Britain, France and Saudi Arabia but conspicuously missing were Russia, China and also key EU member Germany.
On Saturday, European foreign ministers meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were expected to urge the U.S. to hold off any military action until U.N. inspectors report on the alleged use of chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, Washington prepared the ground for possible strikes, evacuating nonessential embassy staff from Beirut and urging Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon and southern Turkey.
Putin and Obama spoke for about half an hour on the sidelines of the summit, but neither managed to change the other’s mind on Syria.
On Friday, the U.S. said it has come to terms with the fact that no deal could emerge despite repeated attempts at persuading Syria’s key ally Russia, and signaled that it would take punitive action against Assad’s regime without the U.N. Security Council’s backing.
Obama said he would prefer to have an international mandate for the strikes, but that Washington should not be paralyzed by a refusal on the part of some countries to act. “If we’re not acting, what does that say?”
Obama, who will address the American people in a speech Tuesday, is now seeking support from Congress for military action, a process he admitted he always knew was going to be a “heavy lift.”
Samantha Power, Washington’s ambassador to the U.N., said ahead of the debate that a U.S. strike would aim to stop a campaign by the Assad regime “to kill their way to victory.”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, and on Friday the Russian Foreign Ministry warned the U.S. against targeting Syria’s chemical arsenal in any attacks.
During a dinner Thursday, leaders including Obama presented their positions on the Syria crisis, confirming the extent of global divisions on the issue.
Putin said a majority of countries at the G-20 appeared to be supporting his position. “You said views divided 50-50, that is not quite right,” Putin said in answer to a journalist’s question, listing only the U.S., Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France as countries supporting intervention.
In Syria, the leading hard-line Islamist group in the north issued a statement on its Facebook page cautioning its followers against supporting U.S. intervention, saying it would only serve American interests and not the cause of those seeking to topple Assad.
The Syrian Islamic Front, which is dominated by the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham group, stopped short of directly opposing American intervention in Syria’s 2½-year-old conflict, which many in the opposition hope would accelerate the fall of Assad. But, the group warned on its Facebook page, the true goal of U.S. attacks would be to “advance the interests of the perpetrators.”
The statements underscored the complexity of the rebel landscape across Syria, where hundreds of small rebel units have sprung up, banded together, split and formed new alliances over the past two years. The Supreme Military Council, which claims to represent the majority of moderate Free Syrian Army units and has long appealed for Western support, has embraced the U.S. proposal for strikes.
The Syrian Islamic Front, led by Ahrar al-Sham and including a number of smaller Salafist groups, describes itself as Islamist but is considered less extreme than the radical groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States that have served as magnets for foreign fighters across the region.
Ahrar al-Sham has established a presence across wide swaths of Syrian territory, notably in the north, and probably has broader support among ordinary Syrians than the extremists.