Putin, Obama fail to heal rift over Syria

On the sidelines of the G20 summit, contradictions remained between the two leaders over US plans for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

NO AGREEMENT ON SYRIA. US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2009 file photo. EPA/Shawn Thew

SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia – US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin failed Friday to bridge their bitter divisions over US plans for military action against the Syrian regime, and Washington signalled that it has given up on securing Moscow’s support at the UN on the crisis.

Efforts to smooth over their split did not go beyond Putin’s welcome of Obama to the G20 summit he was hosting, with the White House launching a scathing criticism of Russian policy on the conflict in Syria.

Putin and Obama spoke for about half an hour on the sidelines of the summit, but neither managed to change the other’s mind on Syria.

“We spoke sitting down… it was a constructive, meaningful, cordial conversation. Each of us kept with our own opinion,” Putin told reporters. His chief foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov also confirmed that the “contradictions remained” after the talks.

Putin has emerged as one of the most implacable critics of military intervention against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over an alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21, saying any such move without UN blessing would be an aggression.

The Russian foreign ministry also Friday strongly warned the United States against targeting Syria’s chemical arsenal in any attacks.

On Friday, the United States said it has come to terms with the fact that no deal could emerge despite repeated attempts at persuading Syria’s key ally Russia, and signalled that it would take punitive action against Assad’s regime without the UN Security Council’s backing.

Obama expressed appreciation for France, saying that he very much valued President Francois Hollande’s “commitment to a strong international response for these grievous acts”, even as Washington evacuated non-essential embassy staff from Beirut, raising the prospects of an imminent strike in Syria.

“What we’ve repeatedly seen is Russia refusing to take action to… (hold) the Assad regime accountable and again seeking to work through different processes to avoid the core issues,” said Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

“We can’t have an endless process at the UN Security Council that doesn’t lead to anything,” he said.

Russia and China — both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — have on three occasions voted down resolutions that would have put pressure on Assad.

Rhodes also slapped down Russian lawmakers’ plans to visit Washington to persuade Congress not to approve Obama’s plans for strikes against Syria, saying Russia has nothing more to contribute.

“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 on this issue,” said Rhodes.

During a dinner on Thursday, leaders, including Obama, presented their positions on the Syria crisis which only confirmed the extent of global divisions on the issue, participants said.

“The differences of opinions of the leaders were confirmed during the dinner,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

“Some states were defending the view that rushed measures should be taken, overlooking legitimate international institutions. Other states appealed not to devalue international law and not to forget that only the UN Security Council has the right to decide on using force,” he added.

A high-ranking source close to the talks said there was a disappointing lack of ambition at the dinner on the Syria issue, noting that Putin as host was keen not to aggravate tensions further.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon Friday also warned that military strikes could spark further sectarian violence in the country which he said is suffering from a humanitarian crisis “unprecedented” in recent history.

“I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence,” Ban said.

The Syria crisis and prospect of military intervention has overshadowed the official agenda of the two-day summit of leaders of the world’s top economies and emerging markets to stimulate growth and battle tax avoidance.

Several Western states share Putin’s opposition to military action and after the British parliament voted against strikes, France is the only power to have vowed it will join American intervention.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP that EU top diplomats should unanimously condemn the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons at their meeting in Vilnius.

Obama is seeking backing from Congress for military action, putting back the timetable for strikes which had been anticipated even before the summit got underway.

The US president held a bilateral meeting Friday morning with President Xi Jinping of China, who like Russia vehemently opposes military action against Syria.

According to US intelligence, more than 1,400 people living in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were killed in the August 21 chemical weapons attack, which involved the use of sarin nerve gas.

The US says the Assad regime was responsible, a claim not accepted by Russia.

With the clock ticking down to strikes, Russia said Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would travel to Moscow for talks on Monday. – Rappler.com

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