G20 summit ends poorly for Obama as France pulls back on Syrian time scale

Vladimir Putin says he and US president stood their ground and neither blinked

US president Barack Obama speaks to the media during a news conference at the conclusion of the G20 summit in St Petersburg, Russia, yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

US president Barack Obama speaks to the media during a news conference at the conclusion of the G20 summit in St Petersburg, Russia, yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin


The G20 summit in St Petersburg ended poorly for US president Barack Obama yesterday as France, his closest ally for military action in Syria, pulled back on the time scale for an attack. The president’s chances of getting the support of Congress in the United States also seemed far from secure.

Not surprisingly, Mr Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin put very different emphases on how G20 leaders took up their positions as the summit came to an end.

Mr Obama told reporters that most leaders of the G20 countries had agreed that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack against civilians that killed more than 1,400 people.

Mr Putin, on the other hand, was adamant that most of the representatives of the world leaders at the summit had opposed an immediate military strike against Syria in retaliation.

On the summit’s first day Mr Obama’s objective of gathering a coalition of countries in support of an attack on Syria suffered setbacks when the European Union announced it favoured pushing the issue through the United Nations Security Council. Also Pope Francis, in a letter to Mr Putin as host of the summit, called for a peaceful rather than a military solution to the crisis.

The surprise decision by France’s president François Hollande to wait for the report of UN inspectors made things even more difficult for the US president yesterday.

It is generally believed that it could take another three weeks before the UN inspectors can come up with their report. This means if the US was to strike urgently it would have to do so by itself, without French participation.

All in all there is little doubt that Mr Putin has come out of the summit on his home territory with more kudos than Mr Obama.

‘Strong response’
While the White House issued a statement that 11 countries had condemned the chemical weapons attack in Syria and had called for a “strong international response”, it was not clear how many of them agreed that such a “strong response” involved military action.

The one thing that most leaders at St Petersburg agreed on was that chemical weapons had been used but there was a difference of opinion on who had used them.

Mr Putin has demanded that evidence of the use of banned weapons including sarin gas should be put before the Security Council and that this evidence be of a scientific nature showing the weapons were used by Syrian government forces.

He ruled out agreeing to non-scientific evidence obtained through eavesdropping or other types of espionage.

“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 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,” Mr Putin said.

‘Political solution’
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 Mr Xi as saying.

“We expect certain countries to have a second thought before action.”

US response to the use of the Security Council as a basis was formulated in a blistering attack on Russia’s use of its veto by the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.

In what has been interpreted here in Russia as a cold war response, it has been stressed in Russian media that little criticism was made of China, which has also used its veto consistently against US policies at the council.