Obama fails to persuade G-20 leaders on Syria

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama failed to persuade foreign leaders at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg to openly back a military strike against Syria.

The failure will make it even harder for Obama to persuade skeptical American legislators and voters to support a strike against Syria in response to Syria’s Aug. 21 nerve-gas attack on civilians in a rebel-held district of Damascus.

The failure to win open international support for military action was buried in a “Joint Statement” approved by several U.S. allies and released Friday morning by the White House.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21,” said the statement, which was signed by leaders from Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom, plus the United States of America

But the statement did not call for a military strike.

Instead, it merely said that “we call for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience that will send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated.”

“Those who perpetrated these crimes must be held accountable,” said the statement, without explaining how they should or could be held accountable.

Prior to the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush lined up votes or support from the United Nations, and won military and economic support from tens of countries.

Obama tried to finesse his failure.

“It was a unanimous conclusion that chemical weapons were used in Syria,” he told reporters Friday morning. “It was an unanimous view that the norm against the use of chemical weapons has to be maintained… [and] I would say the majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that [Bashar] Assad — the Assad [dictatorial] government — was responsible for their use,” he said.

He said that opposition to a strike is prompted by other countries’ principled belief that military action needs legal authorization from the United Nations.

“Where there is a division has to do with the United Nations,” he claimed.

“There are number of countries that just as a matter of principle believe that if military action is to be taken, it has to go through the U.N. Security Council,” he insisted.

Some countries believe that there is a norm against the use of chemical weapons that should be enforced with military force, even if the U.N. fails to act, he said. That “is a view that is shared by a number of [leaders] in the [G-20 conference] room,” he said.

Some of the countries that approved the statement have already hinted they would quietly or openly support a strike.

France’s socialist president, Francois Hollande, has hinted he would participate in a strike. He intends to bring the decision before the French Parliament.

The United Kingdom’s prime minster, David Cameron, said he can’t participate in a strike because public opposition prompted Parliament to vote against participation. But he hasn’t tried to oppose a U.S. military strike.

The statement was signed by two of Syria’s neighbors, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are already helping rebels factions that are now trying to overthrow the Syrian dictatorship.

Syria is ruled by leaders in the Alawite community, who comprise roughly 10 percent of the population. The Alawites are Arabs who embrace a variant of the Shia branch of Islam. Their Shia-style of Islam has helped them win military and financial backing from Iran, the main home of Shia Islam.

In contrast, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are populated by Sunni Muslims, who generally deride Shia Muslims.

The Turkish government is backing the radical Muslim Brotherhood’s forces in Syria, while the Saudi government and wealthy Saudis tend to back even more radical groups, including some affiliates of al-Qaida.

The Brotherhood and al-Qaida share similar goals — the revival of an Islamic theocracy across the Arab region — but the differ on the means. The brotherhood tries to win power via civil action, education, and votes as well as force, while the al-Qaida insists that power can only be won by force.

“We’ve coordinated very closely with Turkey in our support for the opposition within Syria, and we’ll continue to do so going forward,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Sept. 6. Obama and the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “had a good discussion on Syria, and we feel quite aligned with Turkey in our approach to the issue,” he said.

Erdogan is an Islamist who has suppressed public protests and jailed journalists in Turkey. He is a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has called for the U.S. to help restore Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government to power after a July military coup , and also to help topple Syria’s government.

Erdogan has supported the brotherhood-affiliated Hamas terror group in Gaza, and is a close American ally in the region.

In Syria, the al-Qaida groups have announced plans to attack civilians who are not Sunni Muslims, including the Alawites, as well as the country’’s large population of unarmed Christians.

It is not clear if the brotherhood-linked rebels groups are willing or able to curbs sectarian murders by the more radical groups.

The U.S. government is supplying financial and military aid to rebels in the southern portion of Syria, alongside the Jordanian border. But U.S. officials say the aid program is constricted by the concern that aid will fall int the hands of the more radical groups.

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