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Obama, Putin face off at G20, with consensus on Syria still elusive

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5, 2013.

DMITRY LOVETSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

U.S. President Barack Obama came face-to-face with the most powerful opponent of his plan to launch a military strike against Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as China and other G20 nations voiced their opposition to an attack.

After days of making the case for strikes to the U.S. Congress, Mr. Obama's lobbying moved to the world stage, at the G20 summit of leaders. But opposition was evident: China warned that strikes on Syria could endanger the world economy, and many others raised concerns.

The summit underlined that Mr. Obama won't be able to command a global consensus on strikes in Syria – Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird admitted "no one is coming here anticipating success." But Canada, he said, does not want a world where dictators can freely use a "poor man's nuclear weapon," and also wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be given new incentive to negotiate.

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While there appears to be no international agreement on military strikes, there are renewed diplomatic initiatives to try to hold the "Geneva II" peace talks between the Assad regime and rebels that the U.S. and Russia jointly proposed in May.

Mr. Baird will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday to press to revive plans for those talks. Canada, which has been more reluctant than most Western nations to support Syrian rebels, fearing extremists in their midst, sits in some ways between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to brokering such talks.

But on the immediate question, whether to respond to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons with military strikes, there appears to be no consensus.

China's vice-minister of finance, Zhu Guangyao, warned any military strike would "definitely have a negative impact on the world economy, especially on the oil price." Countries such as South Africa and Argentina say they oppose any military action unless it is approved by the United Nations. Even European Union nations are not expected to all agree on a joint position. And Russia's Mr. Putin is clearly trying to rally opposition.

From the moment Mr. Obama pulled up to the G20 summit's entrance in St. Petersburg, Russia, tensions were evident.

Mr. Putin had stood alone on a white carpet outside the Constantine Palace, where he had pleasantly welcomed one smiling leader after another. But when Mr. Obama arrived last in his large black Cadillac, he shot a stern and sombre look at his Russian counterpart – before eventually turning toward the a wall of cameras and smiling for photographers.

Later, at a dinner with the leaders, Mr. Putin raised Syria and leaders spoke to the subject, according to Canadian officials. Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated Canada's support for allies who are proposing action in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.

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Russia has remained an ally of Mr. al-Assad, and Mr. Putin has insisted there is no evidence the Assad regime was behind an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.

On Wednesday, the Russian President called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a liar for saying al-Qaeda fighters have a limited role among the Assad regime's opponents. "We talk to them [the Americans], and we assume they are decent people, but he is lying and he knows that he is lying," Mr. Putin said. "This is sad."

And in New York on Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, conceded that there is no hope for obtaining UN Security Council authorization – saying that Russia had held the council "hostage."

Expecting a Russian veto, the Obama administration won't even seek international legitimacy in the form of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria. A "resolution has no prospect of being adopted, by Russia in particular," Ms. Power said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted this week that any attack on Syria without an explicit UN Security Council mandate would be illegal.

U.S. presidents have gone to war without UN Security Council authorization before. Democrat Bill Clinton bypassed the UN in 1999 and ordered months of strikes against Serb forces, a NATO campaign that included Canadian warplanes.

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In this case, however, Mr. Obama faces another body whose approval is crucial, the U.S. Congress.

The White House announced Thursday that the President is cancelling a trip to California next week, and is considering an address to the nation when he returns from Russia.

Securing a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate looks probable. But Mr. Obama's hopes for political backing in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives may fail. If so, he would be the first president ever to fail to obtain congressional backing for military action. Several presidents have opted not to ask.

An informal and continuing tally by The Hill counts 97 members of the 435-seat House of Representatives opposed (69 Republicans and 28 Democrats) compared to only 31 in favour (22 Democrats and nine Republicans). If that ratio holds when next week's full vote is taken, the authorization-of-force resolution will fail by a massive majority.

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Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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