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Syria crisis ‘splits’ G20

Putin’s tally

Here’s how Putin called the summit in terms of the countries that back military action in Syria and those against.

This is what he said:

Actually opinions didn’t divide 50/50. Who was for military intervention? The US, France, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Turkey. Mr Cameron also was advocating military intervention but the British parliament was against it. The Chancellor of Germany is also cautious. Germany is not going to participate in any military action. Who was condemning and opposing that way of action? Russia, India, China, Indonesia, Argentinia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy. And also the secretary general of the UN voiced his protest against military intervention. And let’s not forget the address by the pope, who directly voiced the inadmissibility of military intervention.

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Obama addresses the congressional fight he faces:

“I knew this was going to be a heavy lift,” he says. “You know our polling operations are pretty good. I tend to have a pretty good sense what current popular opinion is… Any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion.

“A lot of people who supported me remember that I opposed the war in Iraq… That experience with the war in Iraq colors how people view this situation.

“I understand this skepticism. So it is very important to make this case systematically.”

He says the main concern of Congress is of a slippery slope.

We can have a response that is limited in both time and scope, and that is meaningful.

Obama says that it’s “possible” that Assad would use chemical weapons in reply to a US attack but it “wouldn’t be wise:

Is it possible that Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical actions more widely? I guess anything’s possible. BUt it wouldn’t be wise. I think it would be difficult for the security council at that point to continue to resist the need for action. And we would gladly join.

Obama says the global community should pick its battles and this is one:

“What I’m trying to explain is, this particular problem of using chemical weapons on children–this we might have and impact on and that’s worth acting, that’s important for us.

“Unless the international community is putting massive numbers of troops on the ground – and I know nobody’s signing up for that– we’re not going to come to a military solution.”

Obama says he spoke with Putin but Edward Snowden did not come up. He said despite the rumors the two have a candid, functional working relationship.

My interactions with him tend to be very straightforward… Mr. Snowden did not come up, beyond me emphasizing that where we have common interests I think it’s important we work together.

“They always look to the United States,” Obama says:

“This is not convenient. This is not something that, I think a lot of folks around the world, find an appetizing set of choices. But the question is, do these norms mean something? And if we’re not acting, what does that say? If we’re just issuing another statement of condemnation, we’re just passing resolutions that say, ‘Isn’t that terrible”…

“And they always look to the United States. Why isn’t the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on Earth, why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?

“And then the international community turns around and say… well hold on, we’re not sure.”

That unravels norms, Obama says.

The president says there’s a threat of multiple unraveling international norms.

“When there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed, is frozen, and doesn’t act, then that norm unravels… and other norms begin to unravel. And that makes for more difficult choices, and more difficult responses in the future.

Obama deploys a rare exclamation point:

“Over 1,400 people were gassed! Over 400 of them were children. This is not something that we fabricated. This is not something we’re using as an excuse for military action… I was elected to end wars, not start ’em.”

Cameron: ‘no need to wait for UN report’

David Cameron insisted that the international community did not need to wait for the UN inspectors to publish their report into last month’s chemical attack before it acted against the Assad regime.

In his summit press conference the prime minister said:

I don’t think we should put too much emphasis on the UN inspectors themselves, because they are not there to find who was to blame. That’s not part of their role. All they can do is find some additional evidence for the use of chemical weapons, but the use of chemical weapons isn’t really in dispute. Everyone accepts chemical weapons were used on 21 August …

I hope that a picture will build not only of chemical weapons use but also of regime culpability. I’m convinced of that case.

Cameron said it was “impossible” to believe the Syrian opposition were responsible, but some at the summit still took that view.

First question: Putin said only a handful of countries support military action. Which ones are they? Did you change any minds?

Did you discuss Snowden?

“I believe that there will be a statement issued later… that indicates some of the additional countries that are making statements,” Obama begins.

“Last night we had a good discussion. I want to give President Putin credit that he facilitated a full airing of views.

“It was a unanimous conclusion that chemical weapons were used in Syria. THere was a unanimous view that the norm against chemical weapons has to be maintained… I would say that the majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that the Assad government is responsible for their use. Obviously this is disputed by President Putin.

“Where there is a division has to do with the United Nations. There are a number of countries that believe… if military action has to be taken it has to go through the UN security council. THere are others, and I put myself in this camp… it is my view… that given security council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response it required and that will not come through security council action.

“That’s where I think the division comes from.”

President Obama is holding a news conference at the G20 summit.

He sticks in his statement to the theme of the meeting, the world economy. He claims the US economy is doing well, a difficult case to make with this morning’s lackluster jobs numbers.

He pivots to Syria. “We did also discuss a grave threat to our shared security,” Obama says. Chemical weapons used by Assad, he says, “isn’t just a Syrian tragedy. It’s a threat to global peace and security.”

Obama says he’s “been encouraged by my discussions with world leaders this week”.

“There is a growing recognition that we cannot sit idly by,” the president says.

Obama announces that he’ll make a speech on Syria next week. “I intend to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday,” he says.

He opens for questions.

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Cameron mildly reprimanded Tory MP Henry Smith for describing Putin as a ‘tosser’ on Twitter. Asked about the comment, Cameron said: “Insulting people should never be a part of foreign policy …. even when under intolerable pressure.”

Cameron: ‘no deal’

Cameron said there was no prospect of a deal on Syria at the summit. “We were never going to reach an agreement,” he told a press conference at the end of the summit.

But he insisted that action should be taken against the use of chemical weapons. “The world benefits from this international taboo on the use of chemical weapons,” he said.

Cameron challenged Putin’s assertion that more countries at the summit were against holding the Assad regime to account for the use of chemical weapons.

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Putin press conference

Putin claims more countries at the G20 opposed military intervention in Syria than supported it. He said only the US, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey backed the use of force against the Assad regime.

Speaking at a press conference at the G20 summit in St Petersburg, Putin said David Cameron also backed military action, but he pointedly reminded reporters that the British parliament had rejected the idea. Putin claimed the public opinion in those countries backing strikes was against such a move.

Putin said strikes against Syria would be “counterproductive” and disrupt the world economy.

The Russian president said he and Obama did not agree on Syria, but listened to each other in one-to-one talks.

“We stuck to our guns,” Putin said according to a live translation.

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gives a press conference at the end of the G20 summit. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

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Cameron defends ‘small island’

Russia has strenuously denied accusing Britain of being a “small island that no one listens to” as reported last night. Nevertheless the reported comments have stung David Cameron into defending Britain’s world role and its history.

Writing on Google Plus the prime minister said:

Britain may be a small island, but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience.
Britain is an island that has helped to clear the European continent of fascism – and was resolute in doing that throughout World War Two.
Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world.
We are very proud of everything we do as a small island – a small island that has the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation.
For the people who live in Northern Ireland, I should say we are not just an island, we are a collection of islands. I don’t want anyone in Shetland or Orkney to feel left out by this.
I’m thinking of setting this to music …

We are very proud of everything we do as a small island – and I definitely can’t fit it all in a tweet. More here: https://t.co/Ooau2VADth

— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) September 6, 2013

Russian navy

AP has a detailed account of the latest on Russian naval movements:

Three Russian naval ships were sailing toward Syria in the eastern Mediterranean on Friday and a fourth was on its way, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a source at navy headquarters.

Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Russia was boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, but primarily in order to organize a possible evacuation of Russians from Syria. He did not say how many vessels were being sent.
Two Russian amphibious landing vessels and a reconnaissance ship have passed through the Dardanelles strait, according to the report carried by Interfax, a privately owned agency known for its independent contacts within Russia’s armed forces.

Three Russian war ships were seen sailing through the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday. It was not immediately clear if they were the same three vessels, although that seemed likely.

Interfax reported that another landing ship had left the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Friday morning and was to pick up a “special cargo” in Novorossiysk before sailing toward the eastern Mediterranean. The state RIA Novosti news agency also said that the landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov would be headed toward Syria after picking up cargo in Novorossiysk, which it said would take several days.

The three ships reported to have passed through the Dardanelles are the Novocherkassk and Minsk landing vessels and Priazovye reconnaissance ship.
The Defense Ministry said it was unable immediately to confirm the ships’ departure.

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A Russian warship sails through the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: AP

US withdraws staff from Lebanon

The US state department is ordering non-essential diplomatic staff to leave Lebanon due to security concerns as Obama contemplates military strikes against neighbouring Syria.

In a new travel warning for Lebanon, the department said it had instructed non-essential staffers to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to depart Lebanon.

It said:

The Department of State urges US citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of current safety and security concerns. US citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks. On September 6, the Department of State drew down non-emergency personnel and family members from Embassy Beirut due to potential threats to US Mission facilities and personnel.

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Kafranbel

Protesters in the northern Syrian town of Kafranbel have urged Congress to back air strikes against the Assad regime, in their latest Friday banner.

#Kafranbel protests today: #US Congress: Prove you hold the real ethics of humanity! #Syria @BarackObama @JohnKerry pic.twitter.com/cXsmLWFQw6

— Rami al-Lolah (@RamiAlLolah) September 6, 2013

Not all Syrian activists back air strikes. Former Damascus academic Zaidon al-Zoabi told CNN that the only way to resolve the crisis is through a political process. Speaking from Lebanon after being tortured in jail in Syria, Zoabi said a political solution would save more lives.

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Family photo

Vladimir Putin kept other world leaders waiting ahead of the G20 summit family photo. When he did turn up, he didn’t hang around for long.

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G20 family photo, St Petersburg. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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Russian President Vladimir Putin walks past Barack Obama during a group photo at the G20 Summit. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Syrian Speaker’s plea to US

The speaker of the Syrian parliament has appealed to the US House of Representatives to reject Obama’s plans for military action.

In a letter to the House speaker John Boehner, his Syrian counterpart Jihad al-Laham, wrote: “We urge you not to rush into any irresponsible reckless action.”

Syria’s state news agency quotes the letter as saying:

We write to you as fathers and mothers, as members of families and communities which really are not so different to yours. Moreover, we write to you as human beings asking: if you bomb us, shall we not bleed? The innocent people will be harmed.

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Obama struggles to convice House

The Obama administration continues to struggle to convince the House of Representatives to back military strikes, Patrick Wintour reports.

Barack Obama may not be able to seek overall congressional support for an attack on Syria for as long as a fortnight, amid signs he has failed to build an international alliance at the G20 and still faces the prospect of heavy defeat in the House of Representatives.

Sources at the G20 expected a vote in the Senate next week but a delay for at least another week in the House.

But the Republican-controlled House – where Obama faces his toughest opposition – has yet to even agree on the text of a resolution. Current calculations suggest Obama will lose in the House substantially.

Unless both Houses adopted the same resolution, which is unlikely, additional time would also be required to synchronise the two resolutions in order for a unified congressional position on the limits of force to emerge.

The US politics blog ThinkProgress has updated its whip count in the House and it’s not looking any better for Obama.

UPDATED Syria whip count: Yes: 25 Lean Yes: 18 No: 82 Lean No: 130 http://t.co/EMNaeU3QzV pic.twitter.com/EytncCyfMb

— ThinkProgress (@thinkprogress) September 5, 2013

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MP calls Putin a ‘tosser’

Tory MP Henry Smith has defended calling Vladimir Putin a ‘tosser’ on Twitter, PA reports.

Putin really is a tosser.

— Henry Smith (@HenrySmithMP) September 6, 2013

PA reports:

Smith acknowledged that the language was not parliamentary but said it did express how he felt about the Russian leader.

He said: “On Twitter in a slight fit of pique I might refer to him as a tosser. But in other forums, such as the House of Commons, I would accuse him of being an absurd character.

“There is his abuse of human rights against the gay community in his own country, there is the abuse of human rights in Syria where the way he is helping and prolonging that civil war there is appalling.”

He added: “I may not use that colloquial language in other forums, but frankly it is still how I feel.”

The MP’s post followed reported remarks by a spokesman for Putin, who was said to have told journalists that the UK was “just a small island: no one pays any attention to them”.

Putin’s chief spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that he was responsible for the comment, insisting it did not reflect the reality of Russia’s views on its “positive” relations with the UK.

Mr Smith said “geographically we may be a small island but the British economy is bigger than Russia” and the UK’s human rights record was far better.

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Cameron admits deep divisions

David Cameron has acknowledged deep divisions within the G20 over Syria, writes Patrick Wintour in St Petersburg.

David Cameron described the debate at the four-hour dinner as passionate, but said the summit was never going to reach agreement on Syria due to the depth of divisions.

He expressed his frustration with Russia‘s President Vladimir Putin‘s insistence that the chemical attack which claimed more than 1,000 lives was undertaken by rebel forces rather than the government. He said Putin “was miles away from what I think the truth is and miles away from what many of us believe”.

He expressed scepticism that Putin could be persuaded by any evidence that the chemical attack was launched by the government’s forces. Cameron reported Putin “said to me he would like to see further evidence of regime culpability and we will go on providing him evidence, but I think it will take a lot to change his mind, let me put it that way”.

During the dinner, Putin told Barack Obama and François Hollande that the chances of reviving peace talks soon after a punitive bombing strike would be minimal.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the working dinner at the G20 summit in St Petersburg. Photograph: HOST PHOTO AGENCY/POOL/EPA

Chemical weapons

Al-Jazeera has more on that analysis by researchers from MIT on why last’s month’s chemical attack east of Damascus proved so deadly.

It interviews weapons expert Theodor Postol who reckons the weapons used were newly-designed to include 10 to 20 times more sarin gas than is usually deployed. Al-Jazeera reports Postol as saying that the Assad regime is the main suspect for the attack because the missiles used would almost certainly have been made in a well-equipped weapons facilities.

As we mentioned on Thursday, weapons blogger Eliot Higgins has more on his Brown Moses blog.

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China insists on UN role

China has insisted that the UN security council be involved in resolving the crisis in Syria after its leader Xi Jinping held a bilateral meeting with Obama at the G20 summit in St Petersburg.

On Thursday, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said there was “not an available” path forward at the security council, which she claimed was being held hostage by Russia.

Asked about those comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei insisted that the security council still needed to be involved.

Speaking at his daily briefing, Hong said:

China supports the important role that the UN Security Council plays in properly resolving the Syria issue. We hope that relevant parties can continue communications and coordination and hold deep consultations so as to resolve the relevant issue in a peaceful way.”

China believes that a political solution is the only realistic way out on the Syria issue. Given the current circumstances, a political solution is of utmost importance.

We also hope the international community can work together and push for the holding of an international conference on the Syria issue at an early date.

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President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping, at their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Russian navy

  • Russia has sent another landing ship towards Syria, according to a new snap from Reuters once again citing the state news agency Interfax quoting a navy source.

Meanwhile, Turkish journalist Mahir Zeynalov tweets an image purporting to show a Russian warship en route to the eastern Mediterranean.

Russian warship passing through Bosporus in Istanbul en route to eastern Mediterranean near Syria. pic.twitter.com/hlGWMpdwd4

— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) September 6, 2013

Update: The newly-dispatched landing ship was named as the Nikolai Filchenkov.

“The vessel will dock in Novorossiysk where it will take special cargo on board and head to the designated area of military service in the eastern Mediterranean,” Interfax quoted the unnamed navy source as saying.
It gave no more details on the cargo.

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Summary

Welcome to Middle East Live on day two of the G20 summit in St Petersburg where the issue of Syria continues to divide world leaders.

Here’s a roundup of the latest developments:

Britain, France and the US have tried to pile pressure on an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin by producing new evidence that lethal sarin nerve gas was used in the notorious chemical attack in Syria in August. The predominantly British claims were based on tests of clothing and soil samples that David Cameron said had been taken from Syria and tested positive for sarin by scientists at Porton Down, Wiltshire.

The G20 summit is evenly split on the issue of Syria, according to Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. RIA Novosti quoted Dmitry Peskov as saying: “A number of states maintained the stance on the necessity of hasty measures ignoring any legitimate international institutions.”

The summit descended into a “slanging match” between world leaders after Russia accused Britain of being a “small island that nobody listens to,” the Mirror reports. The remarks were later denied by the Kremlin and rejected by Cameron. “I don’t accept that for a moment. It’s right to make a stand on chemical weapons, it’s right to take that to Parliament, it’s right to respect Parliament,” the paper quoted him saying.

David Cameron has announced an additional £52m in UK aid for those affected by the civil war in Syria. The prime minister chaired a meeting of world leaders at the G20 summit in St Petersburg in which he focused on humanitarian aid for Syria after MPs voted against military intervention.

Tony Blair claims that sectarian tension after the invasion of Iraq, rather than the west’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction, explains Britain’s hesitancy over Syria. In an interview with the BBC he said: “The reason why Iraq makes us hesitant is because Iraq showed that when you intervene in the circumstances, where you have this radical Islamist issue, both on the Shia side and the Sunni side, you are going to face a very difficult, tough conflict.”

• Barack Obama began personally calling wavering US lawmakers during his trip to Russia on Thursday as his pursuit of congressional authorisation for military action threatened to drag on well into next week. A running tally maintained by CNN estimated 24 senators were preparing to vote yes against 17 leaning no, with the remaining 59 undecided. In the House, the position appears reversed with 97 leaning against and only 28 so far declared in favour.

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A crowd member holds up signs against military action in Syria as US Senator John McCain speaks with constituents during a town hall meeting in Phoenix. Photograph: Ralph Freso/AP

Why is the UN taking so long to investigate the evidence for a chemical weapons attack? The Guardian’s science editor, Ian Sample, explains:

If a laboratory finds signs of a chemical agent, it must follow up with a second test that uses different equipment. If that tests positive, the scientists must then synthesise the chemical the equipment has found and test that as a final proof. To make the procedure even more laborious, every sample must be sent to at least two laboratories for independent testing. If their results do not agree, a third laboratory performs a fresh analysis.

The US state department has condemned new video highlighted by the New York Times which appeared to show Syrian rebels executing Assad’s forces. A spokesman said: “We can’t confirm the alleged perpetrators’ affiliations, but we strongly condemn summary executions by any party in Syria. We’ve reached out to opposition officials and we’re seeking more information at this time.”

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