WASHINGTON — Facing roadblocks at home and abroad, President Barack Obama this week plans to urge reluctant world leaders to back an American-led strike against Syria even though the prospects for military action depend on the votes of a fractured U.S. Congress.
The uncertainty surrounding Syria will hang over the president’s three-day overseas trip, which includes a global summit in Russia and a stop in Sweden. So will Obama’s tense relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the world leader who is hosting the Group of 20 gathering and has perhaps done the most to stymie international efforts to oust Syria’s Bashar Assad.
“It’s been like watching a slow-moving train wreck for nearly two years,” Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Obama-Putin relationship. “Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama don’t like each other at all. I think there’s a deep degree of disrespect.”
That’s not Obama’s only headache as he embarks on the long-planned trip.
The timing of it pulls him away from Washington just as he’s urgently seeking to rally lawmakers to support military action in Syria in response to what the administration says was a chemical weapons attack. And his unexpected announcement over the weekend that he would punt the decision to Congress on whether to strike Syria may have stoked doubts among world leaders about his willingness to make good on his threats to rogue nations.
While Syria isn’t officially on the agenda at the economy-focused G-20 summit, Obama administration officials say the president sees the gathering as an opportunity to press his counterparts to support military action against the Assad regime. World leaders also will seek guidance from the U.S. president about whether he plans to proceed with a strike if Congress rejects his proposed resolution — a question Obama’s aides have refused to answer.
Votes in the House and the Senate are expected next week, just after Obama wraps up his trip.
Obama is to arrive in Stockholm Wednesday morning after an overnight flight from Washington.
The White House hastily added the Sweden visit to Obama’s schedule after he scrapped plans to meet one-on-one with Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20. That came in response to the Kremlin granting temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, defying Obama’s requests to send the former NSA systems analyst back to the U.S. to face espionage charges.
Snowden’s leaks to American and foreign news organizations about secret government spying programs have sparked outrage overseas, particularly in Europe. Obama is likely to face questions about the scope of the programs while overseas, as he did earlier this summer during meetings with the Group of 8 industrial nations.
Even before the Snowden incident, relations between the U.S. and Russia were already on the rocks amid American concerns over human rights and differences on missile defense and nuclear weapons programs. Putin also has appeared to relish blocking American and Western European efforts to weaken Assad throughout Syria’s 2ﾽ-year civil war. Russia remains one of Syria’s strongest military and economic backers.
In a pointed jab last week, Putin asked Obama to reconsider a military strike, saying he was appealing to Obama not as a world leader, but as a Nobel Peace laureate.
“We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world,” Putin said. “Did this resolve even one problem?”
Obama’s stop in Sweden will focus on issues such as climate change, security cooperation and trade. The trip marks the first time a sitting U.S. president has made a bilateral visit to Sweden.
While in Stockholm, Obama will hold private meetings with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and King Carl Gustav, and will break bread with Nordic leaders from Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. He also will highlight Sweden’s technical research programs and celebrate Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited for saving at least 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust before mysteriously disappearing after being detained by authorities in the Soviet Union near the end of World War II.