September 6, 2013

Obama, in Europe, still pursuing support on Syria

But Russia, which is one of the Syrian president's biggest economic and military backers, continues to block and condemn international efforts.

By JOSH LEDERMAN/The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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President Barack Obama reaches to shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during arrivals for the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool)

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin, front center right, speaks with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, front center left, as they walk with other G-20 leaders toward a dinner at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The threat of missiles over the Mediterranean is weighing on world leaders meeting on the shores of the Baltic this week, and eclipsing economic battles that usually dominate when the G-20 world economies meet. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

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Syria dominated the nearly three-hour meal, with leaders condemning the use of chemical weapons but reaching no consensus about the proper response, said a French official in St. Petersburg. Many leaders at the dinner remained in doubt about whether 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 in this Russian port city.

The White House said Obama conferred on Syria 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 Friday as Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government has warned vigorously against the use of force.

Before his scheduled return to Washington late Friday, Obama also planned to meet with Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists, calling attention to another area of disagreement with Moscow.

A fleeting interaction between Obama and Putin became the high-drama moment of the summit, underscoring the labored state of relations between the two leaders. The eyes of the world watching, the Russian and the American were all smiles Thursday as they made small talk in front of news cameras for a few seconds as Obama arrived at the summit.

But the welcoming handshake may have been where the pleasantries ended. In other venues, the two nations were repeatedly bumping heads.

Russia's foreign ministry, in a statement Friday, said a U.S.-led strike would mark "a new dangerous turn" in the crisis, risking the release of chemical weapons or their possession by terrorists. And the head of the foreign affairs panel in Russia's lower house of parliament, Alexei Pushkov, blasted Obama on Twitter as having "completely transformed into a president of war."

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said Russia was boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, moving in warships into the area and stoking fears about a larger international conflict if the United States orders airstrikes.

Even at home, there was far from a consensus that an American strike on Syria was the best course of action. Awaiting Obama upon his return was an equally fractious debate in Congress over whether to authorize the limited military action he was proposing.

Pulling out all the stops, Obama was working the phones from Europe and appealing for support from leery lawmakers, Democratic and Republican alike. And he called off a planned trip to California next week, opting to stay in Washington to keep up the pressure on Congress to say yes.

As top national security officials continued to brief Congress on the accusation against Assad and the proposed response, a measure authorizing Obama to act was advancing tenuously through the Senate, winning approval from a foreign relations panel Wednesday and heading to the Senate floor. The measure's prospects were dicier in the Republican-controlled House.

In an unusual turn of events, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner both said that a delegation of Russian lawmakers had sought to meet with them to discuss Syria. Both leaders, who are supporting Obama's call for a strike, turned down that invitation, aides said.

"I don't know that the Russians have anything to add to the debate in the United States, given that we know where Russia stands," said Rhodes, the Obama aide.

 

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