WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama begins a high-stakes trip to Sweden and Russia today that could show whether the United States has broad international backing for action.
At the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, the ongoing strife in Syria and uncertainty about Obama's plans are likely to overshadow an agenda focused on economic issues. Privately, Obama will try to persuade world leaders to support U.S.-led action in Syria — putting him at odds with the summit's host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of the Syrian regime who will press his case against strikes.
Obama's visit comes as the U.S.-Russia relationship deteriorates over disagreements about Syria, Russia's new law targeting "homosexual propaganda" and the country's protection of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs.
Obama had planned to meet privately with Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20 summit but called off the meeting after Russia granted asylum to Snowden. No bilateral meeting between the two leaders has been announced for the visit, although a U.S. official said they will "have many opportunities to engage."
Obama is planning bilateral meetings with other world leaders to consult on possible military action in Syria, U.S. officials said. But experts said it will be difficult for him to gain support as long as the scope of possible strikes or whether Congress will authorize them remain uncertain.
"He's going over there, he wants their support on Syria, but for them it's like, 'Until your Congress says yes," said Mark Katz, a Russia analyst at George Mason University. "For risk-adverse politicians, why go out on a limb? They don't want to state their support for the use of force against Syria and then have Obama not do it."
British Prime Minister David Cameron supports retaliation against the Syrian regime, but his Parliament last week voted down any military action. In France, President Francois Hollande has signaled support as well, although his country's Parliament is still debating the issue.
Putin has given Syrian President Bashar Assad's government critical military and economic support throughout the country's bloody civil war. He has spoken out against a U.S-led strike in retaliation for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.
Russian officials said Putin expects to take advantage of the G-20 summit to discuss Syria with other world leaders, among them, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who on Tuesday was touring the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and plans a bilateral meeting with Putin.
Obama will begin his overseas trip today in Stockholm, where he intends to highlight trade alliances, global development and climate change.
Obama will arrive in St. Petersburg on Thursday. The summit comes at a tense moment for human rights in Russia because of a new law that criminalizes the promotion of homosexual behavior if children might be exposed. Obama has spoken out against the measure.