Russian President Vladimir Putin says the G20 will discuss the Syria crisis over dinner as it seeks to overcome bitter divisions over a US-led push for military action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
With pressure mounting on the G20 group of nations to make concrete progress towards ending the conflict at their summit in St Petersburg, the United Nations announced that its special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was on his way to attend the meet to push for peace talks.
US President Barack Obama arrived in St Petersburg from Sweden after clearing the first hurdle in his race to win domestic congressional backing for punitive strikes over the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In a bid to smooth over the tensions, the two leaders put on a show of smiles for the cameras as they shook hands just before the summit got under way.
Putin opened the summit by revealing that the Syria crisis – which has threatened to overshadow all other items at the meeting – would be formally discussed over dinner.
“Some participants have asked me to give the time and possibility to discuss other… very acute topics of international politics, in particular the situation around Syria,” Putin told the opening plenary session of the meeting on the shores of the Gulf of Finland at a former Imperial palace outside St Petersburg.
“I suggest we do this during dinner so that we … in the first part can discuss the (economic) problems we had gathered here for and are key for the G20,” he added.
An Obama aide said he would argue his case for military action against Syria and explore what type of “political and diplomatic support they may express for our efforts to hold Syrian regime accountable”.
But Syria’s allies remained unmoved by Obama’s push, with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling allegations of an August 21 chemical weapons attack by the regime a “pretext” to launch strikes against the country, and pledging to support Damascus “until the end”.
On the eve of the summit, Putin bluntly warned the West that any military action without UN Security Council approval would be an “aggression” and once again demanded watertight proof of chemical weapons use.
According to US intelligence, more than 1,400 people living in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were killed in the strike, which involved the use of the sarin nerve gas.
Beyond convincing Russia, Obama has a tough sell ahead elsewhere, with China – another veto-wielding Security Council member state – having already expressed its “grave concerns” over unilateral military strikes.