BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The smiles were in place, the handshakes firm, as Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted his American counterpart in St. Petersburg, site of this week's G20 summit of the world’s leading economies.
But it was not hard to see the gritted teeth beneath the genial exterior.
This summit, designed to showcase Russia’s status as a world power, is, instead, being overshadowed by the crisis in Syria.
President Barack Obama and Putin stand at opposite ends of the issue.
Obama is the main advocate for military strikes to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for alleged chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on Aug. 21.
So far the US president has only France unequivocally on his side, although he does have the backing of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron is personally supportive, but lost a crucial vote on the issue last week in parliament.
Putin and China are united in their opposition to the use of force.
The rest, which include Canada, Italy, South Africa and Argentina, are at various points on a spectrum of dismay, even disgust at the gruesome deaths in Syria, but where a reluctance to commit to military action predominates.
Over the past few days, Italy has sent warships to Lebanon, where it has United Nations peacekeeping soldiers stationed, but it's cagey on the subject of direct military action in Syria.
The UN has appealed for patience and restraint. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also attend the summit and, along with UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, will press for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.
Even the Vatican weighed in. Pope Francis sent a letter to Putin urging the world leaders to abandon "the futile pursuit of a military solution."
Obama is expected to spend a significant portion of his time at the G20 lobbying reluctant allies to get behind his plans for Syria.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
The G20 represents two-thirds of the world’s population, nearly 90 percent of global gross domestic product and 80 percent of international global trade.
It was created in 1999 to restore the world’s economic growth, strengthen its financial system and reform its financial institutions.
It was never designed to be a proxy UN. But with politics taking precedence over economics, it’s starting to look that way, says Risto E.J. Penttila, president of the Finland Chamber of Commerce, writing in The New York Times.
“The G-20 [has] become the forum where questions of war and peace will be debated and decided,” he said.
With the deep divisions among the major players, it’s very unlikely that any real progress can be made during the scant two days of the G20.
Putin did say during an interview with Russian television that he did not rule out strikes on Syria if sufficient evidence could be presented that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attacks.
This, says Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank, is disingenuous in the extreme.
“Obama could present a smoking gun with Assad’s prints on it and Putin would not accept it,” he said. “This is not about evidence, it’s about politics.”
And the politics are complicated.
According to Pifer, Putin has four major reasons for supporting Assad. First, Russia has very few close allies, and Putin may be reluctant to ditch one. Second, Putin stands squarely behind the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, no matter how ugly and abhorrent.
Third is payback for Libya. Putin is still smarting from having voted for a 2011 UN resolution to establish a no-fly zone. The resulting regime change was not something he had envisioned.
But the fourth reason is perhaps the most powerful: Putin has no idea what comes after Assad is toppled. Many have pointed to the presence of radical Islamists among those in opposition to Assad.
“Putin can certainly imagine a worse outcome [than the Assad regime],” Pifer said.
Fiona Hill, also a senior fellow at Brookings, says Putin fears a triumph of Islamic extremism could cause unrest in his own back yard.
“Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse — a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009,” she writes in Foreign Affairs magazine.
“In Putin’s view … Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism.”
So there is a lot more riding on Putin’s “intransigence” than a simple desire to thwart Washington.
As Obama sits at the summit session and engages in sidebar meetings with world leaders, analysts say, he is really playing to the folks at home.
With a UN resolution all but an impossibility, given Russia’s stance, and an international coalition seeming as far away as ever, the president is hoping against hope that his Congress will back him.
He got a small victory on Wednesday, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution on the use of force in Syria by a narrow vote of 10-7, a text that will be put to full Senate vote next week.
But amendments inserted into the text by senators John McCain and Chris Coons might make any discussions at the G20 even more delicate.
McCain insisted that the resolution specify that “it is the policy of the United States to … change the momentum on the battlefield.”
This will doubtless raise Putin’s hackles, and he’s not alone.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, who voted against the resolution, told National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” Thursday this could lead to a greatly expanded commitment in the region.
“Some of that language sounds a lot like regime change,” he said. “And if you’re going for regime change it is a much, much longer mission.”
The Syria crisis has weakened Obama, Pifer notes.
“The president made a serious mistake in going to Congress only last Saturday,” he said. “It makes him look reluctant, hesitant and indecisive.”
These are not qualities to raise America’s credibility on the world stage.
Obama attempted to broaden the discussion yesterday in Sweden.
“I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line,” he insisted. “My credibility is not on the line — the international community's credibility is on the line."
But this argument has proved less than convincing to a majority of the world’s leaders, at least those gathered in St. Petersburg.
On Thursday evening, television news flashed footage of Obama striding to the G20 working dinner, which Putin had proposed as the venue for discussion of the Syrian problem.
America's president was alone.
Just three months ago at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper excoriated Russia for its stance on Syria.
“It is not the G8, it is the G7 plus 1,” he said, slamming Russia for “supporting the thugs of the Assad regime.”
Now, with the rest of the world standing by and waiting for Washington, it is looking, unhappily, like the “G19 plus 1,” but this time it is not Russia who is isolated.
Obama and Putin's meet and greet moment