World leaders from the Group of 20 are meeting in St Petersburg, Russia, amid sharp differences over possible US military action against Syria, in response to what the US administration calls a deadly chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government.
Thursday’s summit comes hours after a US Senate panel voted to give President Barack Obama authority to use military force against Syria – the first time lawmakers in that country have voted to allow military action since the October 2002 votes authorising the invasion of Iraq.
The US and Russia, which is a key Syrian ally, remain at odds as Obama has tried to build his case for military action. The US president has vowed to continue to try to persuade his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, of the need for punitive strikes against President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons when the two meet in St Petersburg.
As Putin opened the summit, he spoke exclusively about the global economic crisis, which forms the primary agenda of the summit, stressing the need for co-ordinated international policy making in order to combat continuing volatility in economic markets.
He suggested that world leaders discuss the subject of Syria “during dinner” on Thursday night, so as not to take away from the summit’s primary economic agenda.
Earlier, Putin had again questioned Western evidence justifying a military strike against Syria, accusing US Secretary of State John Kerry outright of lying when, in urging Congress to approve strikes, he played down the role of al-Qaeda in the rebel forces.
“Al-Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this,” Putin said. “He is lying and knows he is lying. It’s sad.”
Putin said US congressional approval without a UN Security Council resolution would be an act of aggression. He also told The Associated Press this week that he “does not exclude” supporting UN action – if it is proven that the Syrian government used poison gas on its own people.
Obama has previously stated that he is prepared to bypass the UN Security Council on the issue, but has put the matter to a Congressional vote. Members of the full US Senate are due to debate the matter next week.
Despite the continued strain in their relationship, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed US President Barack Obama with a smile and a handshake to the G20 summit.
In one of the most closely watched greetings of international diplomacy, the 15-second exchange at the entrance to St. Petersburg’s splendid Constantine Palace drew widespread media attention as a potential telltale sign of relations between the United States and Russia.
The exchange was their only planned one-on-one appearance at the summit in the midst of tensions between the two leaders over Syria and Russia’s grant of asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
As Mr Obama shook hands and smiled broadly, he thanked his host and nodded toward the palace pronouncing it, quote, “beautiful.”
Mr Obama arrived in his armored limousine, unlike other summit leaders who rode in G-20 Mercedes cars.
The conflict in Syria, which began with a popular uprising in March 2011, has been stalemated, and it is not clear if US military strikes over the government’s alleged chemical weapons use would change that.
Obama has said he seeks limited pinpoint action to deter future chemical attacks, not regime change.