Obama pushes at G-20 summit for strikes on Syria

White House faces pressure from global leaders not to pursue military action in Syria

President Barack Obama attends the first working meeting of the G-20 summit on Thursday.
Ramil Sitdikov/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

President Barack Obama arrived Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Group of 20 economic summit -- which appears likely to be less about global economic affairs than an impending U.S. strike in Syria.

Obama briefly shook hands when met by G-20 host, and key Syria ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a steely exchange that lasted less than 20 seconds. The two are at odds over U.S. plans to strike Syria for an alleged chemical weapons attack the U.S. says was carried out by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. has said more than 1,400 people including at least 400 children were killed in the Aug. 21 attack, for which Assad has vehemently denied responsibility.

While at the economic summit, Obama has been lobbying lawmakers in Washington by phone to convince them that a limited attack on Syria is necessary, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.

In an MSNBC interview televised later Thursday evening, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the president's stance on punishing Assad for the alleged use of sarin gas on civilians.

"We are trying to enforce the international norm" against chemical weapons, Kerry said. "That's all this military strike seeks to do."

Also Thursday, Vice President Biden and Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken hosted a bicameral meeting on Syria with members of Congress in the White House Situation Room, and Biden made calls to members on both sides of the aisle in the House and in the Senate.  

Obama's presence in Russia also puts him in the same country as National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden for the first time since the American fugitive fled to Moscow earlier this year. Both Syria and Snowden have been sore points in an already strained U.S.-Russian relationship, fueling the notion that Obama and Putin can't get along.

The first round at the summit seemingly went to Putin, as China, the European Union, the BRICS -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and Pope Francis warned of the dangers of military intervention without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

The pope, who leads the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged the G-20 leaders in a letter to "lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution."

Putin, in an Associated Press interview ahead of the summit, played down personal tensions with Obama.

"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia," Putin said. "And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either."

The White House has stressed that while the two will cross paths at various meetings, Obama will not be meeting one-on-one with Putin during his stay in St. Petersburg.

Still struggling to convince lawmakers at home about taking action against Syria, Obama will seek to win over world leaders reluctant to get drawn in to another U.S.-led military intervention in a Mideast nation. Although Syria isn't formally on the agenda for the summit, the country's bloody civil war is primed to become a central topic of conversation.

Meanwhile, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy warned on Thursday against a military response in Syria, aligning the group more closely with Putin than Obama in how best to respond to the alleged chemical attack. Van Rompuy called the attack "abhorrent" and a crime against humanity, but said a military strike would not help resolve the crisis.

"Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed, grave violations of human rights and the far-reaching destruction of Syria," he said.

'Credibility on the line'

Click for Al Jazeera's special coverage of the conflict in Syria

Complicating Obama's efforts to present a united front on Syria is the ongoing debate in Congress over whether to approve a strike -- a debate Obama invited when he decided Saturday to seek congressional approval. Some lawmakers view him as trying to preserve his own credibility after issuing an ultimatum to Assad last year against using chemical weapons.

"My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line," Obama said Wednesday at a news conference in Stockholm.

While insisting that Obama has yet to prove his case, Putin appeared to temper his rhetoric slightly in the pre-summit interview with the AP, saying he wouldn't rule out backing a U.N. resolution if he is presented with "convincing" evidence that Assad gassed his own people.

Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, cast doubt on Putin's softer tone, saying the U.S. was "highly skeptical" that Russia would act differently if the U.N. Security Council were to take up the Syria issue again.  

The back-and-forth reflects a serious deterioration of relations since the summer of 2009, when Obama, on his previous visit to Russia, trumpeted a "reset" in relations between the former Cold War foes.

The crisis in Syria joins a long list of contentious issues that have made cooperation between the countries a trying endeavor, even though Obama points to successes early in his presidency on nuclear stockpile reduction and trading regulations. More recently, the two have butted heads over missile defense, human rights and other issues.

Obama will call attention to one such area of disagreement -- gay rights -- when he meets Thursday in St. Petersburg with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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