Syria crisis dominates G20 summit
on 05/09/2013 15:30:34
Mr Obama began a two-day visit to St. Petersburg for the G20 economic summit, putting him in the same country as National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden for the first time since the American fugitive fled to Moscow earlier this year.
Both Syria and Edward Snowden have been sore points in an already-strained US-Russian relationship, fuelling the notion that Mr Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin cannot get along.
Stepping out of his armoured limousine at the arrival ceremony, Mr Obama greeted his Russian counterpart with a few brief words and a handshake.
Turning to the waiting cameras, Mr Obama grinned before entering the ornate Constantine Palace. Praising the beauty of the palace, Mr Obama thanked his host, who smiled at the American leader.
The starched, business-like exchange was the most highly anticipated of the summit, but lasted less than 20 seconds.
The White House went out of its way to say that while the two would cross paths at various meetings, Mr Obama would not be holding any one-on-one meetings with the Russian leader during his stay in St Petersburg.
Still struggling to drum up support at home for a strike on Syria, Mr Obama will seek to win over world leaders reluctant to get drawn into yet another US-led mission in the Middle East.
Although Syria is not formally on the agenda for the economy-focused summit, US officials are resigned to the fact that the bloody civil war there could overwhelm any talks about global economics.
Shortly after his arrival in St Petersburg, Mr Obama met on the summit's sidelines with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. He has planned similar meetings with the leaders of France and China on Friday.
In an ironic twist for the US president, the summit's host nation forms the biggest obstacle on Mr Obama's path to an international consensus on Syria.
Russia has provided critical military and financial backing for Bashar Assad and has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to keep a resolution condemning Syria from getting off the ground. At the same time, Mr Obama has had little success enticing individual nations to join the effort.
At the top of his meeting with Mr Abe, Barack Obama said the two leaders would discuss Syria as well as their continued concerns about the nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the importance of North Korea abiding by international law.
But he said their primary focus would be on the economy and how they can improve jobs and growth.
Complicating Mr Obama's efforts to present a united front on Syria is the debate in the US Congress over whether to approve a strike - a debate Mr Obama invited when he abruptly decided to seek congressional approval amid deep concerns from both parties.
Some politicians view Mr Obama as trying to preserve his own credibility after issuing an ultimatum to Bashar Assad last year against using chemical weapons.
Mr Obama said in Stockholm on Wednesday: "My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line."
While insisting Mr Obama has yet to prove his case, Mr Putin appeared to temper his rhetoric slightly in a pre-summit interview, saying he would not rule out backing a UN resolution if it can be proved Mr Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, as the US has alleged.
He also played down any personal tensions with the US leader, but said: "President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia. And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either."
Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser, cast doubt on Mr Putin's softer tone, adding the US is "highly sceptical" that Russia would act differently if the Security Council were to take up the Syria issue again.
And Mr Putin, speaking to his human rights council a day after the interview, was unequivocal about US secretary of state John Kerry, whom he accused of whitewashing ties between al-Qaida and some rebel groups in Syria.
"He is lying and he knows that he is lying. This is sad," Mr Putin said.
The crisis in Syria joins a long list of contentious issues that have made cooperation between the countries difficult, even though Mr Obama points to early successes in his presidency on nuclear stockpile reduction and trading regulations.
More recently, the two have clashed over missile defence, human rights and other issues.
Mr Obama will call attention to one such area of disagreement - gay rights - when he meets lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in St Petersburg on Friday.