Obama pressed his case with world leaders at the Group of 20 summit, which included an opulent dinner last Thursday night with ballet dancers and fire jugglers. His pitch slipped past midnight on a night capped by St. Petersburg fireworks at 2 a.m. After Friday’s round of meetings, the burden of a looming military strike in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons use and the lack of explicit support from summit partners weighed visibly on the president when he addressed the traveling press corps. It’s conceivable that “I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide.”
And then he would have to decide whether to attack Syria, even absent congressional support.
With plenty of U.S.-Russian tensions simmering — over Syria, Moscow’s sheltering of former NSA leaker Edward Snowden and more — Obama decided there would be no formal one-on-one with Putin. But the Russian leader, the Syrian government’s leading patron on the world stage, approached him Friday and they pulled chairs together off to the side.
Flanked only by interpreters, with other leaders looking on, they launched into a 20-minute discussion about Syria. There was no breakthrough on one vexing aspect of their disagreement — the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, Putin broached an idea that the two leaders had first discussed a year ago at the G-20 summit in Mexico — an international agreement to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Obama agreed that could be an area for cooperation and suggested Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov follow up. You wouldn’t know it from Obama’s public mood that day, but seeds had been planted.