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Syria Tensions Dominate G-20 Summit; Russia Seen as Central Obstacle for U.S.

September 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. push to punish Syria over chemical weapons use dominated the G20 summit that opened in Russia today. The president hoped to advance his policy in the face of stiff opposition from the Kremlin.

President Obama arrived in Saint Petersburg knowing his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a central obstacle to action against Syria. The two men exchanged a handshake and pleasantries, but little else, underscoring the palpable tensions between them. Those were already evident in June, when they met at a conference in Ireland, and since then things have gone from bad to worse.

The president said as much yesterday in Sweden.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests, even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues. Where we have got differences, we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences, but not sugarcoat them.

JEFFREY BROWN: A key difference came when Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker. That prompted President Obama to call off a formal meeting with Putin during this trip.

The Russian leader suggested yesterday, it doesn’t matter whether they like each other.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): President Obama hasn’t been elected by the American people with the purpose of being pleasant to Russia, and your humble servant hasn’t been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to anyone. We work. We argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes, one of us gets vexed. But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for searching for joint decisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Syria, though, Putin said it’s — quote — “completely ridiculous” to conclude that the Syrian government was behind a chemical attack outside Damascus last month.

So far, Russia has blocked action by the U.N. Security Council, and today, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that leaves no viable path forward at the world body.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities, including as a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, back in Washington, there were more closed briefings for senators and House members, as the administration pressed the need for a military strike at Syria.

The argument was bolstered by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who came out in favor of the president’s policy. Still, a number of lawmakers remained uncertain, including Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: I am firmly undecided at this point. This is very serious. It’s a very difficult issue. We have to look at the impact on Israel’s security. We have to look at the signals that it sends rogue states like Iran or North Korea if we don’t act. But we also have to consider the possibility that our acting would cause a further escalation of the violence in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two other Republicans, Louisiana’s David Vitter and Utah’s Mike Lee, announced today they’re opposed to using force in Syria.

But Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she’s convinced by the evidence that it’s time to act.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif: It’s enough for me. See, I think that the prohibition on chemical weapons is well-founded. And after you watch exactly what happens, you can see why that’s so, because they have tons and tons and tons of this stuff. They have one of the largest, if not the largest, storage base of chemical weapons in that part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: A Senate vote is expected next week. And an Associated Press survey found today that 40 senators are undecided on how they will vote; 34 support or lean toward military action, and 26 are against.

Even from Saint Petersburg, aides said the president has been calling lawmakers in search of more yes votes. He’s expected to continue lobbying both Congress and world leaders before returning home tomorrow night.