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September 06, 2013

WH predicts a "solid number" of US allies to back Syria position

Despite deep misgivings by a number of nations, the White House insisted Friday that it expects to leave the G-20 economic summit with significant support for its plan to launch a military strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

"We don't expect every country here to agree," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters as President Barack Obama completed a final day of lobbying world leaders. "But we do believe that there is a strong number of U.S. allies and international partners who are supportive of the notion that there needs to be an international response that holds the Assad regime accountable."

But the rosy assessment was at odds with the sharp divisions that emerged at a late Thursday night into early Friday morning dinner between the leaders. Russia and China are firmly opposed; the European Union and a number of emerging economies warned about the danger of military intervention without the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

British Prime Minister David Cameron declared a consensus impossible on Friday with Syrian ally and Russian President Vladimir Putin's views "miles away from what I think the truth is and miles away from what lots of us believe."

Obama spent four hours at a dinner with world leaders Thursday night -- with the focus of the dinner the situation in Syria. It was uncertain if he emerged with commitments; Rhodes wouldn't name countries and said the White House isn't expecting the economic-focused summit to issue a formal finding on Syria: "What we would look for today is which of those countries will express support for the fundamental importance of enforcing international norms against the use of chemical weapons," he said.

Indeed, the formal declaration makes no mention of Syria, but cites the economy as the leaders' top priority.

Obama left a Friday meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping with zero change in Beijing's opposition to using force against the Assad regime, Rhodes said.

"We've obviously had a difference with China on this issue," he said, noting that Obama and Xi agreed that the two countries "would continue to cooperate ...on the political track."

Rhodes acknowledged many countries want a role for the UN, but said Obama emphasized that the Security Council has been "paralyzed" by vetoes from Russia and China.

"We can't have an endless process at the UN Security Council that doesn't lead to anything," Rhodes said.

But Rhodes said the beef with Russia is larger: "This is one of those issues where Russia really is in the lead in terms of its support for the Assad regime," he said, adding it's not been a "principal issue in the U.S.-China relationship by any measure." 

Rhodes said the White House expects a "solid number" of supporters by the close of business today. He said Obama pressed upon leaders "the importance of upholding international norms" against the use of chemical weapons and that "the majority" of leaders at the dinner believe Bashar Assad's regime was responsible for the chemical weapons -- not, as the Russians assert, the Syrian opposition. 

Obama met with one "yes" vote, Turkey, on Thursday night and was meeting late Friday afternoon with French President Francois Hollande, his strongest ally on Syria.

Further underscoring differences with Russia, Obama planned a separate meeting Friday with Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.

Rhodes rejected suggestions that Obama's decision to seek Congress's approval complicated his push here, saying the White House believes it will "strengthen our ability to build international support, because people will see the president is acting with the backing of the US Congress and that inherently puts him in a stronger position internationally."

Syria isn't the only problem overshadowing the summit for Obama: He met on the sidelines at the dinner with Mexico's president who is also alarmed by reports of NSA surveillance on world leaders. Obama pledged to work with president Enrique Pena Nieto -- and Brazil's president, Dilma Rouseff, whom Obama met with before the dinner -- "to address concerns that they have," Rhodes said. "This is an ongoing process that we'll work through with the governments."

But Rhodes rejected suggestions that the NSA revelations, too, have complicated Obama's efforts to seek support for military action in Syria.

"These are very particular concerns that the Brazilian and Mexican governments have irrespective of what else is on our bilateral agenda," he said. "They’re related to recent disclosures in the Brazilian and Mexican media, and we’re going to continue to work it through intelligence and diplomatic channels."


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