G20 summit ends without agreement on Syria
Putin rallies opposition to proposals for punitive action against Assad
World leaders left the G20 summit in St Petersburg today without reaching a consensus on Syria. Photograph: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
US president Barack Obama prepares to speak at a news conference at the G20 Summit in St Petersburg in Russia today. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US president Barack Obama resisted pressure to abandon plans for air strikes against Syria and enlisted the support of 10 fellow leaders for a “strong” response to a chemical weapons attack at the G20 summit today which left world leaders divided on the conflict but united behind a call to spur economic growth.
Mr Obama refused to blink after Russian president Vladimir Putin led a campaign to talk him out of military intervention at the two-day summit in St Petersburg.
He persuaded 10 other G20 nations to join the United States in signing a statement calling for a strong international response, although it fell short of supporting military strikes, underscoring the deep disagreements that dominated the summit.
The two leaders remained far apart on Syria after a 20-minute one-on-one talk on the sidelines of the summit, following a tense group discussion on the civil war over dinner last night.
“There has been a long discussion with a clear split in the group,” a G20 source said after the dinner in a Tsarist-era palace in Russia’s former imperial capital, St Petersburg.
Mr Putin said he and Mr Obama stood their ground and neither blinked but at least there was dialogue. “We hear one another, and understand the arguments but we don’t agree. I don’t agree with his arguments, he doesn’t agree with mine. But we hear them, try to analyse them,” he said.
China’s Xi Jinping also tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Mr Obama from military action. “A political solution is the only right way out for the Syrian crisis, and a military strike cannot solve the problem from the root,” Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying. “We expect certain countries to have a second thought before action.”
But 11 members of the group of 20 leading economies — including the UK — issued a joint statement, signed on the sidelines of the summit, declaring that: “The world cannot wait for endless failed processes that can only lead to increased suffering in Syria and regional instability. We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
French president Francois Hollande said France will await conclusions by UN inspectors before deciding on any action. That could mean French involvement in any military strikes against Bashar al-Assad not being decided until close to the end of the month at the earliest.
At a news conference at the conclusion of the summit, Mr Obama said he will address the US nation about Syria next Tuesday as he seeks public and congressional authority for military action.
He said most leaders of the G20 countries agree that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is responsible for using poison gas against civilians as he tried to rally support at home and abroad for a military strike.
“I was elected to end wars, not start them,” Mr Obama said. “I’ve spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people.
“But what I also know is that there are times where we have to make hard choices if we’re going to stand up for the things that we care about. And I believe that this is one of those times.”
US politicians have called on Mr Obama to build support with the public by making such an address. Washington says troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad carried out a poison gas attack which killed over 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21st. Mr Putin said the attack was carried out by the rebels in order to provoke outside military intervention against Assad.
Unable to win United Nations Security Council backing for military action because of the opposition by veto-wielding Russia, Mr Obama is seeking the backing of the US Congress.
He stuck to that position in St Petersburg, despite a warning by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon about the need to find a political settlement to end the war. “Every day that we lose is a day when scores of innocent civilians die,” Mr Ban said.
Participants at the dinner last night said the tension between Mr Putin and Mr Obama was palpable but that they seemed at pains to avoid an escalation. Mr Obama said credit was due to Mr Putin for facilitating the long discussion of the Syrian crisis on Thursday night.
Mr Obama defended his position at the talks with Xi, whose country has veto powers on the Security Council.
Mr Obama appeared isolated in St Petersburg, despite France’s support for military action, and the presence of allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But his actions suggested that winning the approval of Congress is his most important short-term goal.
Mr Obama said most G20 leaders agreed that Dr Assad launched the chemical weapons attack, but were divided over whether to use force in Syria without Security Council support.
Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, made clear yesterday the United States had given up trying to work with the Council on the issue, and accused Russia of holding it hostage.
The dispute over Syria has deepened strains in US-Russian ties, already difficult because of differences over human rights and Moscow’s hosting of Edward Snowden, a spy agency contractor who revealed details of US surveillance programmes. Mr Putin said Mr Obama had not requested Mr Snowden’s extradition today, adding that it would be impossible anyway.
The G20 achieved unprecedented co-operation between developed and emerging nations to stave off economic collapse during the 2009 financial crisis, but the harmony has since waned. Despite their differences, the leaders agreed on a summit declaration that the global economy is improving although it is too early to declare an end to crisis. The leaders stuck closely to a statement issued by G20 finance ministers in July that demanded monetary policy changes must be “carefully calibrated and clearly communicated”.
“Our most urgent need is to increase the momentum of the global recovery, generate higher growth and better jobs, while strengthening the foundations for long-term growth and avoiding policies that could cause the recovery to falter or promote growth at other countries’ expense,” the leaders said.
Member states are at odds as the US recovery gains pace, Europe lags, and developing economies worry about the impact of the Federal Reserve’s plans to stop a bond-buying programme that has helped stimulate the US economy.
The BRICS emerging economies - Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil - have agreed to commit $100 billion to a currency reserve pool that could help defend against a balance of payments crisis, but the mechanism will take time to set up.
The G20 talks were held as the Syrian government dispatched reinforcements including tanks and armoured personnel carriers to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have clashed with regime troops.
Opposition fighters led by an al-Qaeda-linked rebel faction attacked the mountainside sanctuary of Maaloula on Wednesday, and briefly entered the village a day later before pulling out in the evening. The assault has spotlighted fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the prominent role of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks fighting to overthrow Dr Assad.
The government forces sent to Maaloula have taken up positions outside the village, which is still under the control of local pro-regime militias, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The assault is being spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel factions and a group the United States has deemed a terrorist organisation. The group includes Syrians as well as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world.
The Syrian government has tried to emphasise the role of foreigners fighting on the rebel side as part of its narrative that the Assad regime is battling a foreign-backed conspiracy. Syrian state television said today the government is offering rewards for turning in a foreign fighter or for information about their whereabouts or assistance in their capture.
Russia, is staunchly opposed to any Western action against Syria. The Kremlin has continued its decades-long alliance with Damascus throughout the civil war, backing Dr Assad militarily, economically and diplomatically.
Russia’s Interfax news agency said Moscow had three naval ships moving toward Syria in the eastern Mediterranean and another en route from the Black Sea. The agency said two amphibious landing crafts and a reconnaissance ship have already passed through the Dardanelles, while another landing vessel left the Black Sea port of Sevastopol this morning for the Eastern Mediterranean with “special cargo”.
Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Russia is boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean “primarily” to organise a possible evacuation of Russians from Syria.
Reports of increased Russian naval presence near Syria have stoked fears about a larger international conflict if the United States carries out air strikes.
In Damascus, the Syrian state news agency Sana said the speaker of parliament, Mohammad Jihad Laham, urged the US Congress to engage in a “civilised” dialogue with Damascus rather than resorting to a dialogue of “fire and blood”.