Obama still pursuing Syria support

AP, ST PETERSBURG, Russia

Sat, Sep 07, 2013 - Page 1

US President Barack Obama is using his last day in Europe to renew his quest for foreign support for a US military strike in Syria, but three days after he left Washington, it is unclear whether the global coalition the president has been seeking is any closer to becoming a reality.

China’s a firm no. The EU is skeptical about whether any military action can be effective. Even Pope Francis weighed in, urging leaders gathered in St Petersburg, Russia, to abandon what he called a “futile mission.”

Still, Obama was undeterred. As the president pressed his case on the world stage, he was dispatching US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to a Washington think tank to argue that the global community cannot afford the precedent of letting chemical weapons use go unpunished.

Yet even as Obama sought the global buy-in that could legitimize a potential strike, his aides were careful to temper expectations that the world community could speak with one voice.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the president was not asking his peers to pledge their own militaries to a US-led strike, but simply to say they agree a military response is warranted.

“We don’t expect every country here to agree with that position,” Rhodes said yesterday at the G20 summit, where Obama was huddling with foreign leaders.

Standing on Russian soil, Rhodes suggested that the US had given up hope that Russia — a stalwart Syria ally — could be coerced into changing its position.

“We don’t expect to have Russian cooperation,” he said.

A key status update was to come later yesterday when Obama, his diplomatic dexterity pushed to the max, was to be quizzed by reporters in the waning hours of the summit.

A jobs-and-growth agenda awaiting world leaders gathering at the ornate Constantine Palace quickly gave way to intense posturing over Syria — at least on the surface. The leaders served up Syria as dinner conversation on Thursday at the suggestion of the summit’s host, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader has steadfastly backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and disputes claims that al-Assad’s regime was behind chemical attacks that the US says killed more than 1,400 Syrians. Other estimates are lower.

Syria dominated the nearly three-hour meal, with leaders condemning the use of chemical weapons, but reaching no consensus about the proper response, a French official said.

Many leaders at the dinner remained in doubt about whether al-Assad’s regime was behind the attack, said the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named according to presidential policy.

So too was the Syrian crisis a prevailing theme in Obama’s individual meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the summit. The White House said Obama conferred on Syria on Thursday evening with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strong supporter of airstrikes against the nation on its southern border. Syria also came up on yesterday when Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), whose government has warned vigorously against the use of force.

Before his scheduled return to Washington later yesterday, Obama was to meet with French President Francois Hollande, his strongest ally on Syria and a vocal advocate for military intervention.