ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Beset by divisions at home and abroad, President Barack Obama candidly acknowledged deep challenges Friday in pursuing support for a military strike against Syria from international allies and the U.S. Congress. He refused to say whether he might act on his own, a step that could have major implications for the U.S. as well as for the remainder of his presidency.
The White House laid out an intense week of lobbying, with Obama addressing the nation from the White House Tuesday night.
"I did not put this before Congress just as a political ploy or as symbolism," Obama said, adding that it would be a mistake to talk about any backup strategy before lawmakers vote on a use-of-force resolution.
The president spoke to reporters at the end of a two-day international summit, where he sought backing for a strike against Syria in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack against civilians. But Obama appeared to leave the summit with no more backing than he had when he arrived.
In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said he was the one with support from the majority of countries attending the Group of 20 meeting. Putin insisted anew that Obama seek approval from the United Nations before taking military action, despite the fact that Russia has blocked previous Security Council efforts to punish Assad throughout Syria's bloody 2½-year civil war.
The White House tried to counter Putin's assessment by releasing a joint statement from the U.S. and 10 other countries announcing support for "efforts undertaken by the United States" to enforce an international prohibition on chemical weapons use. The statement did not specify military action against Syria, but administration officials said the intent was to show international support for that type of response.
The countries signing the statement with the U.S. were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Putin said the U.S. push for military action has been supported only by Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France.
"The use of force against a sovereign nation is only possible as self-defense — and Syria hasn't attacked the United States — and on approval of the U.N. Security Council," Putin said. "Those who do otherwise place themselves outside the law."
Indeed, Obama's coalition appeared anything but strong. Britain's Parliament has already voted against military action. Even French President Francois Hollande, who has expressed willingness to form a military coalition with the U.S. against Syria, displayed sudden caution, saying he would wait until a United Nations investigation into the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack was released before deciding whether to intervene militarily. The U.N. report is not expected to be released until mid-to late-September.
Obama and Hollande discussed strategy during a meeting on the sidelines of the summit Friday. The U.S. president also held a surprise meeting with Putin, one that Putin initiated with some small talk during a break in Friday morning's summit session. A senior administration official said the two leaders, who have a strained relationship, eventually moved to a corner, pulled together their chairs and talked for about 20 to 30 minutes as other summit participants looked on. The official was not authorized to describe the meeting publicly and spoke only the condition of anonymity.
Both Obama and Putin later said their conversations were candid, but yielded no new agreement on Syria.
The burden of undertaking military action appeared to be weighing on Obama throughout his 50-minute post-summit question-and-answer session. He made several references to the immense responsibility the world places on the United States in responding to humanitarian crises, saying that the first question often asked is, "Why isn't the United States doing something about this?"
The president departed Russia Friday night, bound for Washington where he also faces tough going in rallying support for military action, including from fellow Democrats. Force-authorization resolutions face an uncertain future in Congress, and a significant segment of the American public opposes a strike.
In addition to Obama's Tuesday night speech, administration officials scheduled new classified briefings for lawmakers and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough was making the rounds on all five Sunday talk shows.
The president admitted his campaign may not succeed.
"It's conceivable at the end of the day 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."
The options facing the U.S. and the international community are neither convenient nor appetizing, Obama said. But he appealed for action on moral grounds, citing U.S. estimates that the chemical weapons attack killed more than 1,400 people, including 426 children. Other estimates are somewhat lower.