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Obama, world leaders debate Syria at G-20 dinner

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- A late-night dinner of world leaders became a forum for global debate over the bloody war in Syria on Thursday night, as President Obama used an economic summit here to try to build support for punishing the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Inside a lavish ballroom at Peterhof Palace, the former summer retreat of the Russian czars, Obama heard an earful from his counterparts around the globe about his desire to launch military strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. is accusing the Syrian leader of killing more than 1,000 civilians with nerve gas in the suburbs of Damascus two weeks ago. Assad has denied responsibility.

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That grave undercurrent turned a typically loose social affair at the annual summit of Group of 20 nations into a sensitive, awkward and lengthy debate about war.

TRANSCRIPT: Obama’s remarks on Syria

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The dinner lasted four hours, breaking up after 2 a.m., only after most leaders had had their say on the matter, according to U.S. officials.

While Obama is seeking backing for a U.S.-led strike against the Assad regime, his host for the meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has cast doubt that Assad is responsible. Putin has acted as a roadblock at the United Nations and accused U.S. officials of lying about the situation on the ground in the 2 1/2-year-old civil war in Syria.

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Many other world leaders at the dinner won’t back a mission that sidelines the U.N., and are uncomfortable publicly endorsing strikes that might further destabilize the Middle East.

Unlikely to pick up a broad coalition of partners in a strike, the White House has instead focused its efforts on collecting statements of support for the broader goal of upholding international agreements barring the use of chemical weapons.

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The White House hoped to build pressure on lawmakers back in Washington, who are still debating whether to authorize Obama to use military force.

Obama made his case for action late Thursday and into Friday morning. The president defended U.S. intelligence on the attack and “reinforced the importance of upholding international norms to which all of the nations here are party to through the chemical weapons convention,” said deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, talking about the president’s remarks at the dinner.

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PHOTOS: Syria before the war

Obama also met privately with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the dinner, Rhodes said. Erdogan has expressed some support for a U.S. strike, although Syrian leaders have threatened to attack U.S.-allied neighbors if such military action goes forward.

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“We feel quite aligned with Turkey in our approach to the issue,” Rhodes said.

Obama also met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff about recent disclosures of U.S. spying, Rhodes said, adding no specifics. The president and U.S. officials are working with those leaders to address concerns, he said.

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Friday morning, Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although China too has blocked efforts to pressure Assad at the U.N., Syria was not the focus of that discussion, Rhodes said. The two leaders instead focused on North Korea, the progress of a cybersecurity working group established over the summer, and the efforts to spur global economic growth.

Obama plans to meet with French Preside Francois Hollande later Friday, before a news conference Friday afternoon.

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FULL COVERAGE: The debate on Syria

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Obama arrives in Russia to seek support for punitive Syria attack

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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Twitter: @khennessey


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