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Obama leaves G20 with no consensus on Syria action

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg September 6, 2013.


U.S. President Barack Obama headed home Friday with few supporters, and no consensus from world leaders to endorse a U.S.-led punitive military attack on Syria.

Instead, the U.S. President left the gathering of G20 leaders in Russia with only a vague letter from 10 nations, including Canada, backing "enforcement" of the ban on chemical weapons.

"We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons," said the letter, signed by Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Turkey. It was far short of Mr. Obama's hoped-for coalition of allies willing to endorse U.S.-led military action to punish the Assad regime for killing more than 1,000 people – including several hundred children – with chemical weapons.

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With polls showing a clear majority of war-weary Americans opposed to any U.S. attack on Syria and the stark possibility that he will fail to get the backing of Congress, Mr. Obama plans to make his case to the American people in a televised address Tuesday.

"It's conceivable at the end of the day I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do," Mr. Obama said in St. Petersburg. "And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide," the President added, although he didn't rule out launching missile strikes even if a resolution authorizing military force fails. But he dismissed such scenarios as "parlour games."

The deep split in Congress and among Americans was also reflected at the G20 summit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper emerged from the meeting with some of his harshest words yet, saying he opposed Russia's long-standing right – as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council – to deny legitimacy to military action.

"I may be oversimplifying it somewhat, but broadly speaking, we have two camps here," said Mr. Harper, referring to those who support the position of the U.S. and France and those who oppose a military strike in Syria.

"I think we share the view of our allies that when we see developments that we think in the long term are dangerous for the planet and therefore for us as well, we are simply not prepared to accept the idea that there is a Russian veto over all of our actions," Mr. Harper said.

The UN Charter dating back to the closing months of the Second World War gave permanent places – and vetoes – in the 15-member Security Council to the war's five victorious powers: Britain, France, China, Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States.

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Mr. Putin made plain what military action without a UN mandate means.

"The use of force against a sovereign nation is only possible as self-defence – and Syria hasn't attacked the United States – and on approval of the UN Security Council," the Russian President said. "Those who do otherwise place themselves outside the law."

That view is shared by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Canada has long championed the UN Charter. But on occasion, notably in 1999 when Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution authorizing attacks on Serbian forces displacing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Canada was among more than a dozen nations that bombed thousands of targets in a U.S.-led air war lasting months.

Mr. Harper also said he strongly urged others leaders at the summit's official dinner Thursday night to consider the consequences of inaction in the context of history.

Mr. Obama said he didn't expect to change the views of his Russian counterpart, who has staunchly backed Syria, Moscow's long-time ally in the Middle East.

"On Syria, I said, 'Look, I don't expect us to agree,'" Mr. Obama said. However, he said he reminded Mr. Putin that they both agree that there must be a political transition to end the fighting in Syria.

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In Washington, the Obama administration was girding for days of relentless lobbying led by the President himself, who is expected to call key congressional leaders and legislators over the weekend.

More classified briefings were planned for Monday as legislators return to the capital after a summer break. The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday and Democratic Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid said he believes the 60 votes needed for a filibuster-proof approval are in hand.

However, the outcome in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is far harder to assess. Currently, more than 90 members in the 435-seat house have said they will oppose any authorization of force – roughly three times the number saying they will back it. However, most have yet to publicly disclose their voting intentions.

With reports from Paul Koring in Washington, Associated Press and Reuters

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