Claudio Bresciani, AP
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Barack Obama is heading into the lion's den of Russia, confronting Syria's key patron as well as foreign leaders skeptical of his call for an international military strike against Bashar Assad's government.
Obama on Thursday began a two-day visit to St. Petersburg for the Group of 20 economic summit, putting him in the same country as Edward Snowden for the first time since the American fugitive fled to Moscow earlier this year. Both Syria and Snowden have been sore points in an already strained U.S.-Russian relationship, fueling the notion that Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin just can't get along.
The White House went out of its way to say Obama, who arrived Thursday after a quick flight from Stockholm, would not meet one-on-one with the Russian leader while in St. Petersburg. But officials predicted the two would still have a chance to interact when they cross paths at various meetings.
Still struggling to persuade dubious lawmakers at home on Syria, Obama in Russia will seek to win over world leaders reluctant to get drawn in to yet another U.S.-led sortie in a Mideast nation. Although Syria wasn't formally on the agenda for the economy-focused summit, U.S. officials were resigned to the fact that the bloody civil war there surely would overwhelm any talks about global economics.
Shortly after his arrival in St. Petersburg, Obama met on the summit's sidelines with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He planned similar meetings Friday with the leaders of France and China.
In an ironic twist for Obama, the nation hosting the summit is also the nation most forcefully obstructing Obama's path to an international consensus. Russia has provided critical military and financial backing for Assad and has leveraged its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to keep a resolution condemning Syria from getting off the ground. At the same time, Obama has had little success enticing individual nations to join the effort.
At the top of his meeting with Abe, Obama said the two leaders would discuss Syria as well as their continued concerns about the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the importance of North Korea abiding by international law. But he said their primary focus would be on the economy and how they can improve jobs and growth.
Complicating Obama's efforts to present a united front on Syria is the raging debate in Congress over whether to approve a strike — a debate Obama invited when he abruptly decided Saturday to seek congressional approval amid deep concerns from both parties. Some lawmakers view Obama as trying to preserve his own credibility after issuing an ultimatum to Assad last year against using chemical weapons.
"My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line," Obama said Wednesday at news conference in Stockholm.
While insisting Obama has yet to prove his case, Putin appeared to temper his rhetoric slightly in a pre-summit interview with The Associated Press, saying he wouldn't rule out backing a U.N. resolution if it can be proved Assad gassed his own people with chemical weapons, as the U.S. has alleged.
He also played down any personal tensions with Obama while acknowledging the parsing of the body language that's become a geopolitical parlor game every time the two leaders meet.
"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia," Putin said. "And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either."
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