President Barack Obama is heading into the lion’s den of Russia,
confronting Syria’s key patron as well as foreign leaders skeptical of
his call for an international military strike against Bashar Assad’s
Obama on Thursday began a two-day visit to St. Petersburg for the Group
of 20 economic summit, putting him in the same country as Edward Snowden
for the first time since the American fugitive fled to Moscow earlier
this year. Both Syria and Snowden have been sore points in an already
strained U.S.-Russian relationship, fueling the notion that Obama and
Russian President Vladimir Putin just can’t get along.
The White House went out of its way to say Obama, who arrived Thursday
after a quick flight from Stockholm, would not meet one-on-one with the
Russian leader while in St. Petersburg. Instead, Obama will meet on the
summit’s sidelines with the leaders of France, China and Japan.
Still struggling to persuade dubious lawmakers at home on Syria, Obama
in Russia will seek to win over world leaders reluctant to get drawn in
to yet another U.S.-led sortie in a Mideast nation. Although Syria
wasn’t formally on the agenda for the economy-focused summit, U.S.
officials were resigned to the fact that the bloody civil war there
surely would overwhelm any talks about global economics, just as it did
three months ago when many of the same leaders convened for a Group of 8
summit in Northern Ireland.
In June, it was weapons and ammunition Obama wanted leaders to send to
struggling rebels fighting Assad’s regime. Obama’s far more daunting
goal now will be to persuade his counterparts to put their own
militaries on the line.
In an ironic twist for Obama, the nation hosting the summit is also the
nation most forcefully obstructing Obama’s path to an international
consensus. Russia has provided critical military and financial backing
for Assad and has leveraged its veto power in the U.N. Security Council
to keep a resolution condemning Syria from getting off the ground. At
the same time, Obama has had little success enticing individual nations
to join the effort.
Further complicating Obama’s efforts to present a united front is the
raging debate in Congress over whether to approve a strike — a debate
Obama invited when he abruptly decided Saturday to seek congressional
approval amid deep concerns from both parties. Some lawmakers view Obama
as trying to preserve his own credibility after issuing an ultimatum to
Assad last year against using chemical weapons.
“My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s
credibility is on the line,” Obama said Wednesday at news conference in
While insisting Obama has yet to prove his case, Putin appeared to
temper his rhetoric slightly in a pre-summit interview with The
Associated Press, saying he wouldn’t rule out backing a U.N. resolution
if it can be proved Assad gassed his own people with chemical weapons,
as the U.S. has alleged.
He also played down any personal tensions with Obama while acknowledging
the parsing of the body language that’s become a geopolitical parlor
game every time the two leaders meet.
“President Obama hasn’t been elected by the American people in order to
be pleasant to Russia,” Putin said. “And your humble servant hasn’t been
elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either.”