Obama, Putin meeting on Syria at G-20 summit?

After Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, Barack Obama canceled a Moscow summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, choosing to visit Stockholm instead on the eve of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. After a friendly greeting on Obama’s arrival, though, Putin wants a dinner meeting to focus not on economics but on the crisis in Syria, and ABC reports that an ad-hoc Syria summit appears to be on:

President Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin greeted each other with smiles and a handshake at the G20 summit today and planned to take up a subject that is not on the group’s agenda — Syria.

Putin suggested that the crisis and the U.S. threat to attack Syria be debated over dinner this evening.

“Some of the participants asked me to allot some time for the discussion of other issues which weren’t part of our agenda but which are extremely important in the global policy. I’m referring to the situation in Syria. Let’s do that during our working dinner so that we do not discuss all the issues at once,” Putin said.

US News reports that the White House is not denying it, and indeed leaving that open as a possibility:

The focus of world leaders gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia for the G-20 summit is supposed to be global economic issues, but the debate over how to respond to the alleged chemical weapon use in Syria is dominating the headlines.

President Barack Obama is not scheduled to meet with host Russian President Vladimir Putin since Russia agreed to harbor U.S. national security leaker Edward Snowden weeks ago. But Obama administration officials say there may be some opportunity for Putin, who remains unconvinced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime executed the Sarin gas attack that left more than 1,400 dead, and Obama to informally discuss the issue.

“The past practice at these summits is you do end up having discussions on the margins of the meeting about other global security issues,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters in a press briefing. “I certainly anticipate the president will have interactions with President Putin even as we don’t have a formal meeting scheduled.”

It’s unclear, though, whether this is a bilateral or multilateral meeting.  Neither would appear to give any benefit to Obama’s case for action against Syria, but a bilateral meeting might help dial down the tension in the US-Russian relationship at the moment.  Over the last few weeks, the two presidents have publicly traded remarkably personal criticisms, and regardless of policy differences, that’s a bad development.

If the dinner meeting on Syria is multilateral with the whole G-20, that looks like a diplomatic trap for Obama.  Only France has offered any support for military action on Syria, while the UK’s David Cameron failed to get his Parliament to go along last week.  He’s likely to find himself outnumbered, and pressured into postponing any action and/or taking his case to the UN.  If he agrees and backs off, then Obama looks weak.  If he ignores US allies (and Putin, but that’s already a given) and pushes forward, then he looks like the kind of unilateral cowboy that he claimed George W. Bush was and gives Putin a boost among Western nations.  This is precisely why heads of state and/or government typically don’t meet on issues until a broad agreement has already been pre-arranged.

At least Obama got this good photo op out of today’s arrival.