President Obama is set to take his push to “deter and degrade” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use on the road this week, using the G-20 economic summit in Russia to build international support for military action.
Obama will likely use the face-time with the select world leaders–whose countries comprise more than two-thirds of the world population and 90% of the global GDP–to shape a coalition of allies in favor of retaliatory action against Assad. U.S. officials have said they have evidence confirming chemical weapons were used in an attack against civilians in Syria on Aug. 21, killing nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children.
The president’s appearance at the G-20 comes at a tense time between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting this year’s gathering. Russian and U.S. officials have spent the past week trading blame and accusations over Syria. Russia has worked to block any U.N. action against the Assad regime–a long time arms client and ally. As Obama made clear his intentions last weekend, Russia claimed it was an excuse for aggression abroad.
But Syria is merely a backdrop to wider conflict stemming from Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to former CIA officer Edward Snowden, a wanted fugitive for leaking classified intelligence documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers. Obama has since called out Russia for human rights violations and anti-gay laws ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
For now, Syria remains most pressing as Obama attempts to lobby global leaders for support. Lawmakers at home are expected to face an up-or-down vote in Congress authorizing military intervention as early as next week. Earlier this year, Obama drew a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s two- year-old civil war. Evidence in hand, the president announced Saturday that he would engage in limited strikes with Congressional approval. Obama said he had the authority to act without Congress but the White Hose has remained tight-lipped about what the president could do if Congress votes against such action. A similar vote by the British parliament to stay out of the Syrian conflict resonated with world leaders who will be watching the U.S. Congressional debate closely as leaders of the G-20 meet this week in St. Petersburg.
“The G-20 was set up to be a crisis committee, a firefighting squad for the global economy,” Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow and director of the international institutions and global governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations told MSNBC. “And now we’ve got a fire of a different sort going on. “
“What makes this particularly difficult is that, in a sense, Obama’s coming into Putin’s house. Not only does Putin head the government that’s been the biggest adversary of U.S. policy in Syria, but also there’s also an incredible level of acrimony between the two leaders. They clearly do not like each other,” Patrick said. “They seem to detest each other.”
Last month, Obama canceled a scheduled one-on-one meeting with Putin that was to be held in Moscow. In place of the Moscow stop, Obama will travel to Stockholm overnight on Tuesday, marking the first visit to Sweden by a sitting U.S. head of state. A Putin aide called the switch “disappointing” in a August statement.
While Washington stayed firm on the line that Putin and Obama would have no formal face-to-face meeting, Tuesday evening an administration official said they “expect the two presidents to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G-20.”
Other leaders at the G-20 include France’s Francois Hollande, an ally in efforts to stop Assad’s regime from continuing attacks on civilians. While France would be a committed partner, it has said it could not act alone.
The French news agency reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron, who would have joined his allies if not for the parliamentary vote against it, plans to make a case for a diplomatic solution during the summit. He will likely urge a tougher response though international channels like the U.N, the AFP reported.
Cameron acknowledged that British lawmakers have grown weary and skeptical of yet another Middle Eastern conflict, more than a decade after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has left a particularly painful scar for many as a conflict waged in an effort to halt the use of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist there.
Putin threw a spotlight on those policies to chide Obama in comments on Saturday.
“We need to remember what’s happened in the last decade, the number of times the United States has initiated armed conflicts in various parts of the world. Has it solved a single problem?” Putin asked Saturday. ”Afghanistan, as I said, Iraq. After all, there is no peace there, no democracy, which our partners allegedly sought.” Putin said.
A financial and military backer of Assad’s forces, Russia joined the embattled Syrian leader in denying his culpability for the Aug. 21 attack, instead placing the blame on the rebel forces. On Saturday, Putin called the G-20 “a good platform” to discuss Syria but “not a substitute for the U.N. Security Council.” On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon suggested that any intervention in Syria would required Security Council backing. “The use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense,” Ban said, “or when the Security Council approves such action.” Russia has already said that no such approval will occur.