Obama heads to Russia summit looking for support of Syria strike

Lesley Clark

President Barack Obama heads this week to a global summit in Russia, hoping to rally international support for his bid to launch a military strike against Syria.

Backing from global partners such as France and Germany could boost Obama’s chances of securing support from Congress for military action when lawmakers arrive back in Washington next week from summer recess. But allies are treading cautiously, particularly after the British Parliament shot down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for military action. And Obama’s call to seek approval from a divided U.S. Congress further muddles the global calculus. He visits Sweden Wednesday, then arrives in Russia on Thursday.

“His decision makes it so much more complicated to build that coalition,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “What does he say to (French President Francois) Hollande when Obama doesn’t know if or when congressional authorization will be there? This is a complicated challenge of building diplomacy.”

“I don’t expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made,” Obama said Saturday. “Privately, we’ve heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action.”

European leaders have suggested waiting for the United Nations, and Conley said she expects “more questions than answers” from U.S. allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a weekend interview with the German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine, said the use of chemical weapons in Syria had “broken a taboo” that “cannot remain without consequence.” But Merkel ruled out German participation “without a mandate” from the U.N., NATO or the European Union.

One impossible sell for Obama: summit host Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government is Syrian President’s Bashar Assad’s chief political and military ally.

Obama and Putin aren’t talking and the meeting of the Group of 20 – representing the world’s wealthiest and emerging economies – has as its focus the global economy. Still, the summit is likely to be overshadowed by Syria and the icy relationship between Putin and Obama, who last month canceled a pre-summit Moscow meeting with the Russian leader amid mounting tension.

“There is no chance that Obama could persuade Putin,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution, noting that Putin dismissed the Obama administration’s intelligence report on Syrian chemical weapon use as “unimaginable nonsense.”

Obama will run into Putin in St. Petersburg, but any interactions will be “short, polite and cool,” Pifer said.

Russia routinely quashes U.S. efforts at the U.N. to censure Assad, but Putin’s response to the U.S. “in the end may be quite measured, because does he really want to make St. Petersburg about Syria?” Pifer said. For Putin, the G20 is a “big show in his hometown of St. Petersburg, designed to showcase Russian leadership on the world stage,” Pifer said.

Obama’s first stop will be Sweden – a trip added after Obama scrapped the meeting with Putin. The staunch U.S. ally has shown a “robust level of engagement” – it contributed troops to the war in Afghanistan and to operations in Mali and was on standby for operations in Libya, said Europe specialist Conley.

In Russia, Syria will only serve to underscore divisions between the U.S. and European countries, which want Assad removed, and China and Russia, who fear Assad’s ouster could prompt regional destabilization and the rise of unfriendly governments.

“The mood of the principal players, the Europeans, the United States, the Russians and Chinese, I would have to think would be very, very sour,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Although the tension with Russia doesn’t rise to the level of the Cuban Missile Crisis or the more recent Russia-Georgia war, the two leaders’ relationship is likely “the worst personal relationship between U.S. and Russian – perhaps even U.S. and Soviet – leaders in history,” Kuchins said.

Though Russia observers are pessimistic about rapprochement, the White House says it is working “productively with Russia on a range of issues,” including counterterrorism exercises with its military and missile defense discussions.

“Even as we paused on holding the bilateral summit with Russia, we’re absolutely prepared to cooperate pragmatically,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy. “We’re going to continue to be driven by our mutual strategic interest, and I don’t see that cooperation should halt even as we have differences on tactics. Russia and the United States have had relations that are often marked by both cooperation and contested policies. So this is not new for us.”

In fact, U.S.-Russian relations have been deteriorating over the last 18 months over Russian disinterest in cutting nuclear weapons, its freeze on U.S. adoptions of Russian children and its treatment of human rights activists.

Lawmakers are pressing Obama to raise U.S. concern over the adoption ban to Putin; gay and human rights activists are pressing Obama to take a firmer stance against anti-gay legislation that Putin signed into law in June. Obama denounced the laws but dismissed calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

One matter not on the agenda for the Russia meeting but a likely topic of discussions: the National Security Agency’s spying program.

Russia recently granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the U.S. citizen who leaked information about the spy program and who now is sought for criminal prosecution.

The ripples are felt in other countries attending the summit as well.

The NSA has emerged as an issue in the German national election, with Merkel’s chief rival pledging to suspend trade talks if he’s elected. Both opposition and government officials are asking for assurance that the U.S. will not spy on Germany. “There is now a real breach in confidence and trust that we have to manage and work through,” Conley said.

And the G20 itself has been a target for the NSA: Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in June that U.S. spies based in the United Kingdom intercepted the “top-secret communications” of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his 2009 visit to Britain for a G20 summit.

“Every delegation’s security team and IT team will be a little more vigilant,” said Matthew Goodman, a former Obama administration official who chairs the political economy program at CSIS.

By Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau