The world’s richest nations are divided over military action in Syria, with US President Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in disagreement over whether the Assad regime has used chemical weapons.
President Obama and President Putin met for 20 minutes on the sidelines of a G20 summit on Friday, but remain at odds over the conflict in Syria.
The US president said there was disagreement among G20 members meeting in St Petersburg about whether it was appropriate to use force in Syria without a United Nations resolution.
He said: “The Assad regime’s brazen use of chemical weapons isn’t just a Syrian tragedy, it’s a threat to global peace and security.
“Failing to respond to this breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations – authoritarian regimes and terrorist organisations – that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction and not pay a consequence.
I was elected to end wars, not start them. Barack Obama
“Obviously this is disputed by President Putin but if you polled the leaders last night I am confident that you would get a majority who said it is most likely, we are pretty confident, that the Assad regime used them.
“Over 1,400 people were gassed, over 400 of them were children. This is not something we have fabricated, this is not something that we are using as an excuse for military action. As I said last night, I was elected to end wars, not start them.”
But Mr Putin blamed the alleged chemical attack on opponents of the Syrian government, saying it was a provocation, and suggested that a punitive US military strike on the Middle Eastern nation would harm the global economy and stifle growth.
He said: “Everything that happened with the so-called use of chemical weapons is a provocation by the rebels, who count on the outside help – on the help of the countries that initially supported them. This is the very essence of this provocation.
“Let me remind you that the use of force against a sovereign state is possible only if done in self-defence, and as we all know Syria is not attacking the United States.”
Russia’s foreign ministry, in a statement earlier on Friday, said a US-led strike would mark “a new dangerous turn” in the crisis, risking the release of chemical weapons or their possession by terrorists.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said Russia was boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean sea, moving in warships into the area and stoking fears about a larger international conflict if the United States orders airstrikes.
The White House said President Obama spoke to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday night, a strong supporter of airstrikes against the nation on its southern border.
President Obama also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government has warned vigorously against the use of force.
Meanwhile the United Nations peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Friday no state had the right to “take the law into their hands” and conduct military action against Syria without UN Security Council approval.
Read more: Obama late to the table
Mr Obama’s concerns were echoed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who said on Friday that the international community cannot “contract out” its morality by allowing Russia to block intervention.
As the G20 summit in St Petersburg wrapped up without consensus on the key issue, the prime minister insisted military action had to be possible without an endorsement from the UN Security Council.
He also stressed that backers of direct reprisals against the Syrian regime had made a “powerful” case at the G20 summit, despite failing to overcome President Putin’s opposition.
Read more: G20 late night sees Syria on the menu
Mr Cameron said a strong response against President Assad was necessary to preserve the “international taboo” against chemical weapons.
“This summit was never going to reach agreement on what action is needed in Syria.
“But the case made by those countries who believe we have to take a stand against the use of chemical weapons was, I believe, extremely powerful.”
He said he believed the countries calling for action had the “better of the argument” during the two-day summit.
“If we are saying that there can only be a response if the UN security council votes positively we are in fact contracting out our foreign policy, our morality to the potential of a Russian veto,” he added.
Responding to earlier claims that Russia has dismissed Britain as a “small island”, Mr Cameron added: “Yes, we are a small island, in fact a small group of islands.
“But I would challenge anyone to come up with a country with a prouder history, with a bigger heart, with a greater resilience.
If I start talking about this blessed plot, this sceptred isle, this England, I might have to put it to music. David Cameron
“This is a country that cleared the European continent of fascism, that took slavery off the high seas, we are a country that’s invented many of the things that are most worthwhile – everything from the industrial revolution to the television to the worldwide web.
“Our music delights and amuses millions: The Beatles, Elgar, and slightly less congruously, One Direction have conquered the world.
“We’ve invented most of the sports that the world most likes playing.
“But as I said earlier, if I go on too long about our literature, our art, our philosophy, our contribution – including the world’s language – if I start talking about this blessed plot, this sceptred isle, this England, I might have to put it to music, so I think I’ll leave it there.”
Mr Cameron also announced an additional £52m in UK aid for victims of the civil war and called for international action to secure humanitarian access to war zones.
The prime minister announced Britain’s new aid contribution – bringing the total UK funding for assistance in Syria and neighbouring states to £400m – at a meeting he called to urge fellow leaders to dig deep to fund a $3bn (£1.9bn ) shortfall in the United Nations appeal for Syria.
Acknowledging the deep disagreements voiced when Syria was discussed at Thursday night’s official dinner, Mr Cameron said that action on aid would show that the G20 had “a very large message” of support for the people of the war-torn Middle Eastern state.
“This is a moral imperative,” Mr Cameron told the meeting, attended by ministers from Canada, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and a senior official in the Obama administration, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the EU’s Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy.
“This is the big refugee crisis of our time. As the secretary general has made clear, 7 million people are in dire need and chemical weapons attacks have made this even more acute.
“A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds while we sit here at this conference. That is 5,000 fleeing their homes and becoming homeless while we are at this G20 summit.
“It is also a political imperative. It will help us build international support for action by showing that our response is not just military.”
Reminding fellow leaders that the UN relief appeal is so far only 43 per cent funded, Mr Cameron said: “The UK is the second largest bilateral donor and today we can announce an extra $81m. We would welcome an announcement by others to highlight our resolve to do more.”