Obama argued in favor of a limited strike on Syria to penalize the regime of President Bashar Assad for the poison gas attack on Aug. 21 which killed over 1,400 people. For days, the US president has been insisting that the blatant violation of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention cannot go unpunished. Washington believes that a one-time strike is both appropriate and necessary -- and vital for the credibility of the international community.
Putin, however, proved immune to such arguments. He continues to profess his doubts that his ally Assad was behind the poison gas attacks. Moscow insists that it isn't "logical," saying that there is no military reason for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons. And Putin has been quick to disregard the evidence presented by the US, Britain, France and Germany, saying it wasn't substantive and that the Syrian rebels could just as easily be behind the attack.
Of the governments represented in St. Petersburg, only three—France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia-- voiced any support for the U.S. proposal to begin a series of strikes to punish Assad even in the absence of any U.N. resolution. Most others, even if they accepted Assad's guilt, echoed some variant of the position articulated by the Chinese, the European Union and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that there is no military solution to the problem and that the world must find a non-military way to respond to Assad's actions.
East Asian leaders at the G-20 summit expressed concerns that a conflict in Syria could push up world energy prices and place fragile economic recoveries in jeopardy. Others wondered how the United States would be able to demolish the military capabilities of Bashar al-Assad's government yet at the same time prevent al-Qaida-linked extremists from coming to power in a post-Assad Syria.
One of the problems facing the Obama team was that there remains widespread skepticism about the veracity of U.S. intelligence claims. Even U.S. and European intelligence reporting also contradicts Kerry's public testimony before the U.S. Congress, where in an effort to downplay the strength of extremist elements among the Syrian opposition he claimed that moderate groups are becoming predominant within the anti-Assad coalition.
So far, the president has not been able to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin or other skeptics that there is solid proof to back up U.S. assertions, in part because Obama did not present his fellow world leaders with clear and convincing evidence, such as satellite imagery or transcripts of intercepted communications. While members of US Congress have received more classified briefings, Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that what has been released publicly, and what serves as the basis of the American case at the G-20, is “unprecedented” and “sufficient” to support the U.S. claims.
Washington has left no doubt that, from this point on, it will prepare an intervention without a United Nations mandate. Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said negotiations in the Security Council had failed because of opposition from Moscow.
All eyes are on Washington with regards to Syria -- the US Congress is set to vote next week on military intervention in the war-torn country. A majority in favor of military action is by no means a certainty, however, neither in the Senate nor in the House of Representatives. The Senate foreign relations committee gave the green light on military authorization on Wednesday, and Obama also has the House leaders of both parties on his side. But the president still has some convincing to do when it comes to senators and members of congress -- in some US constituencies, Syrian intervention is just as unpopular as in Europe.
Though bringing Syrians to the table will be difficult, bridging the gap between Russia and the US will be equally complicated. Diplomatic relations between the two nations have hit rock bottom at this week's G-20 summit. Not only did Putin openly called Secretary of State John Kerry a liar, Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said that Russia had contributed nothing to a solution in Syria. Verbal disarmament is unlikely -- the discussion will only become more heated.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit-AFP-World Leaders at G20, in St Petersburg-Russia.