DIVISIONS over plans to launch a US-led military strike against the Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad deepened last night, as world leaders gathered at the G20 summit in St Petersburg.
The host, Russian president Vladimir Putin confirmed that, although Syria was not on the official agenda, they would discuss the situation over dinner last night.
Ahead of those talks, Prime Minister David Cameron revealed the UK had evidence sarin gas had been used by Mr Assad’s regime against his own people.
The US and France have separately confirmed the use of sarin in the 21 August chemical weapons attack near Damascus, in which an estimated 1,400 people died.
Even before the G20 summit got under way, it had been overshadowed by the threat of escalation from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who warned the US “will suffer” if it launches a strike on Syria.
US president Barack Obama warned the “world’s credibility was at stake” over chemical weapons, but he struggled to convince many other nations, including China, Brazil and India, who joined Russia in opposing a military strike.
Germany said it had evidence the chemical weapons strike had been carried out by the Assad regime, but chancellor Angela Merkel, who is facing an election later this month, said her country would not join any military action.
She was doubtful world leaders would agree on what to do about Syria, saying: “I do not believe yet that we will reach a joint position.”
The G20 leaders were also urged by Pope Francis to hold back and look for a peaceful solution.
Mr Cameron arrived at the conference with his hands tied, following his defeat in the Commons last week on the issue of possible military action against Syria. But he made clear he still backed the US and other allies taking action.
The Prime Minister said he took “full and personal responsibility for the decision to recall parliament, for the decision to take a strong and principled stand against the gassing of children in Syria, and for putting forward as generous a motion as I could, to bring as many people with me as I could. Everyone who voted has to live with the way that they voted”.
He also said the UK had evidence of the sarin gas attack.
“All the testing that’s been done, including the testing we are doing at our Porton Down laboratories, all adds to the picture,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone is seriously denying that a chemical weapons attack took place. I think the Russians accept that. Even the Iranians accept that.
“The question is obviously convincing more people that the regime was responsible.”
At the start of the two-day summit, which was originally intended to focus on the international economic crisis, Mr Putin reiterated his opposition to any military action unless the evidence that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime was strong enough. He said military action without UN approval would be “an aggression”.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the US should wait for the report of UN inspectors, who investigated the alleged chemical attack, before intervening militarily, adding that Washington’s evidence of the regime’s involvement was not strong enough.
Mr Peskov told a briefing on the sidelines of the summit that the US evidence “was quite far from being convincing”.
The tension had been clear as Mr Obama arrived in St Petersburg. Stepping out of his armoured limousine at the arrival ceremony, he greeted his Russian counterpart with a few brief words and a handshake.
Turning to the waiting cameras, Mr Obama grinned before entering the ornate Constantine Palace. Praising the beauty of the palace, he thanked his host, who smiled at the American leader.
The exchange had been the most highly anticipated of the summit, but it lasted less than 20 seconds and was no more than business-like.
The White House went out of its way to say that, while the two men would cross paths at various meetings, Mr Obama would not be holding any one-on-one meetings with Mr Putin in St Petersburg.
The tension between them had grown over Russia’s decision to give asylum to CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden and American criticism of anti-gay laws in Russia.
But the G20 host nation had allies in the Syrian debate, with the leaders of the Brics group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) expressing concern that a military strike could affect the global economy.
Chinese deputy finance minister Zhu Guangyao said: “Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on oil prices – it will cause a hike in the oil price.”
In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted the UK remained “fully behind” the Syrian opposition, following talks with its leader.
The Foreign Secretary and Syrian National Coalition president Ahmad Al-Jarba discussed ways Britain could provide “further non-lethal support” for the struggle against Assad’s regime.
“President Al-Jarba and the people of Syria should be in no doubt that the UK stands fully behind the Syrian National opposition – the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” Mr Hague said. “They are the best possible hope for a political solution to the crisis and for a future Syria which is stable and democratic.
“The UK will continue to lead international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the now two million refugees who have fled Syria and the four million who have been forced from their homes. We are working closely with the moderate opposition to alleviate this appalling suffering and to provide practical and political support.”
Mr Hague reiterated that the UK was “absolutely opposed to any use of chemical weapons”, and said a delivery of protective equipment had arrived in Syria.
Earlier, former defence secretary Liam Fox said the government’s Commons defeat on military action had left Mr Cameron “sidelined” in St Petersburg.
But former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: “[The G20] can surely unite around a determined effort to improve humanitarian relief.
“The summit would be a qualified success if it could agree to do everything possible to achieve a ceasefire so that the humanitarian effort can proceed unhindered. David Cameron should make this a priority.”
Troops battle with rebels linked to al-Qaeda for control of village
SYRIAN government troops have battled al-Qaeda-linked rebels over a regime-held Christian village in western Syria for a second day,
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the UK-based Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters who descended on the village of Maaloula included members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group.
Despite a heavy army presence, Mr Abdul-Rahman said the rebels patrolled the streets on foot and in vehicles, briefly surrounding a church and a mosque.
The rebels launched the assault on Maaloula – which is on a Unesco list of tentative world heritage sites – on Wednesday, after an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the mountain village, about 40 miles north-east of Damascus. It is home to 3,300 people, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
Heavy clashes between president Bashar al-Assad’s troops and al-Nusra fighters persisted in the surrounding mountains yesterday, said the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.
A local nun told how frightened residents in the village expected the Islamic militants to return and resume shelling of communities in the area.
“It’s their home now,” the nun said. She said some 100 people from the village had taken refuge in the convent. The 27 orphans who lived there had been taken to nearby caves overnight “so they were not scared”.
Former defence minister defects
Bashar al-Assad’s former defence minister is reported to have fled to Istanbul, after a defection that betrays cracks in the president’s support among his own Alawite sect.
Opposition figures said Gen Ali Habib had reached Turkey with the aid of western agents.
There is growing speculation he fell out with Mr Assad after a 2011 crackdown on protesters. Some sources believe he might now be lined up by US and Russian officials for a role in transitional arrangements to negotiate an end to the civil war.
Gen Habib, 74, was once army chief of staff and served as defence minister in 2009-11.
Many military and political figures have deserted Mr Assad, but most have been from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.