Obama unable to find allies at G20 summit willing to use military force against Syria
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Beset by divisions at home and abroad, President Obama candidly acknowledged deep challenges on Friday in pursuing support for a military strike against Syria from international allies and Congress. He refused to say whether he might act on his own, a step that could have major implications for America as well as for the remainder of his presidency.
The White House laid out an intense week of lobbying, with Obama addressing the nation from the White House on Tuesday night.
“I did not put this before Congress just as a political ploy or as symbolism,” Obama said, adding that it would be a mistake to talk about any backup strategy before lawmakers vote on a use-of-force resolution.
The president spoke to reporters at the end of a two-day international summit in which he sought backing for a strike against Syria in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack against civilians.
But Obama appeared to leave the summit with no more backing than he had when he arrived.
In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar Assad, said he was the one with support from the majority of countries attending the Group of 20 meeting. Putin insisted anew that Obama seek approval from the United Nations before taking military action, despite the fact that Russia has blocked previous Security Council efforts to punish Assad throughout Syria's bloody 2½-year civil war.
The White House tried to counter Putin's assessment by releasing a joint statement from the United States and 10 other countries announcing support for “efforts undertaken by the United States” to enforce an international prohibition on chemical weapons use. The statement did not specify military action against Syria, but Obama administration officials said the intent was to show international support for that type of response.
The countries signing the statement with America were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Putin said the United States' push for military action has been supported only by Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France.
“The use of force against a sovereign nation is only possible as self-defense — and Syria hasn't attacked the United States — and on approval of the U.N. Security Council,” Putin said. “Those who do otherwise place themselves outside the law.”
Indeed, Obama's coalition appeared anything but strong. Britain's parliament has voted against military action. Even French President Francois Hollande, who has expressed willingness to form a military coalition with America, displayed sudden caution, saying he would wait until a U.N. investigation into the alleged Aug. 21 sarin gas attack was released before deciding whether to intervene militarily. The U.N. report is not expected to be released until mid- to late September.
Obama and Hollande discussed strategy during a meeting on the sidelines of the summit on Friday. Obama also held a surprise meeting with Putin, one that Putin initiated with some small talk during a break in Friday morning's summit session.
A senior administration official said the two leaders, who have a strained relationship, eventually moved to a corner, pulled together their chairs and talked for about 20 to 30 minutes as other summit participants looked on. The official was not authorized to describe the meeting publicly and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Both Obama and Putin said their conversations were candid but yielded no new agreement on Syria.
The president departed Russia on Friday night, bound for Washington, where he faces tough going in rallying support for military action, including from fellow Democrats. Force authorization resolutions face an uncertain future in Congress, and a significant segment of the American public opposes a strike.
Suggesting an uphill fight for Obama, House members staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against his plan for a military strike by more than a 6-to-1 margin, a survey by The Associated Press shows. The Senate is more evenly divided prior to its vote next week.
Still, the situation is very fluid. Nearly half of the 433-member House and a third of the 100-member Senate remain undecided.
By their statements or those of aides, only 30 members of the Republican-led House support intervention or are leaning in favor of authorizing the president to use force against Assad's government in response to a chemical weapons attack last month. About 192 House members outright oppose U.S. involvement or are leaning against authorization, according to the AP survey.