Obama finds limited support on Syria
After two days of intense lobbying, President Obama left a summit with world leaders Friday with some expressions of support for a strong U.S. response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but well short of an international coalition that might help persuade reluctant lawmakers.
The president had hoped to use the meeting of the Group of 20 nations to build pressure on Congress as it considers whether to authorize missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
Before leaving for Washington, Obama said at a news conference that he would make his case in an address from the White House on Tuesday, an acknowledgment that his plans remain divisive both abroad and at home.
“This is not something that I think a lot of folks around the world, you know, find an appetizing set of choices,” he said. “But the question is, do these norms mean something? And if we’re not acting, what does that say?”
The president had to settle for a carefully worded statement backed by representatives of 10 countries that said Assad should be held accountable for an alleged nerve gas attack on Damascus suburbs two weeks ago, but did not explicitly support military action or promise participation. Among those who did not endorse the statement was the summit’s host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s closest ally.
Obama and Putin pulled up two chairs in a corner and talked for more than 20 minutes Friday, almost entirely about Syria. The leaders have exchanged harsh words, but Putin called the talk “friendly” and Obama said it was “candid and constructive.” But it did not break their impasse over how to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack or how to end the 21/2-year-old Syrian civil war.
“We both remained unconvinced by each other’s opinion,” Putin said at a news conference. “But there is a dialogue. We hear each other, we understand arguments, but we don’t agree with them.”
Putin added that Russia will continue to supply weapons to Assad in his battle against the rebel opposition. Local news reports said three Russian ships and possibly a fourth were headed to the eastern Mediterranean, where the United States has four guided missile destroyers and an amphibious ship with 300 Marines.
At a dinner that stretched into the morning hours Friday, world leaders vigorously debated Obama’s plan, with many saying the president should wait for the United Nations to complete a report on the Aug. 21 attack and sanction a response. Obama argued that the U.N. Security Council was paralyzed by disagreement. Russia and China, which have veto power, have blocked efforts at the Security Council to put pressure on Assad.
Obama’s plan for what he emphasizes would be “limited and not open-ended” strikes also remains unpopular in the United States. The statement and the heated discussion was a reminder of what Obama has called “a heavy lift” as he seeks to sell lawmakers and the American public on the need for a military response.
The Senate could take the first vote on the issue as soon as Wednesday, but the House should “expect a robust debate” and a vote in the “next two weeks,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.
The Obama administration had resisted intervention in the war, but switched course after the alleged chemical weapons attack, which U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded killed more than 1,400 people.
On Friday, Obama compared his bid for action to humanitarian intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the U.S. failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He cast the international division as the result of war-weary leaders “rationalizing not making tough choices.” The United States alone, he said, shoulders the burden of enforcing international agreements on human rights and chemical warfare.
“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,” Obama said.
But Obama did not persuade a single ally to endorse a specific action. Immediately after he spoke, the White House released the joint statement from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Turkey, as well as the United States. It found that evidence “clearly points” to Assad’s government as responsible for the attack, called for a “strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience” and asserted that “the world cannot wait for endless failed processes.”
The statement did not specifically endorse military action, but concluded, “We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
A White House official, however, said there was no question what that implied. “The president has been very clear about how he intends to do that with tailored military action,” a senior administration official said.
The president has insisted that he does not need congressional authorization, but reiterated Friday that it would make a U.S. response “more effective and stronger.”
Obama would not say whether he will launch missiles even if he loses the vote. Pressed on the issue, Obama was blunt. “You’re not getting a direct response,” he said. “I’m not going to engage in parlor games.”
In his absence from Washington on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough worked the phones; U.S. officials briefed members of Congress; and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech at a think tank, arguing, “The use of limited military force can strengthen our diplomacy and energize the efforts by the U.N. and others.”
When Obama returns to Washington, he will oversee one of the most momentous lobbying efforts in his tenure.
Hennessey reported from St. Petersburg and Loiko from Moscow. Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli, Christi Parsons and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.