WASHINGTON -- As his administration tries to rally support in Congress for military strikes in Syria, President Barack Obama will begin 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, Russia, the ongoing strife in Syria and uncertainty about Mr. Obama's plans are likely to overshadow an agenda focused on economic issues. Privately, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 highly classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs.
Mr. Obama had planned to meet privately with Mr. Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20 summit but called off the meeting after Russia granted asylum to Mr. 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."
Anders Aslund, a Russia specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said there are major risks for Mr. Obama in attending the summit. "I think that this will be really a trap that President Obama is getting into for no good reason," he said. "When there is an event like this, the Russians are in charge. The host is always in charge ... [Mr. Obama] has no support for Syria there. He will only get beaten up over it."
Mr. 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, remains 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.
Mr. Putin has given Syrian President Bashar al-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 to kill hundreds of civilians.
Russian officials said Mr. Putin expects to take advantage of the G-20 summit to discuss Syria with other world leaders -- among them, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who plans a bilateral meeting in St. Petersburg with Mr. Putin.
Mr. Obama will begin his overseas trip today in Stockholm, where he intends to highlight trade alliances, global development and climate change. He is scheduled to meet with Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and King Carl XVI Gustaf and eat dinner with leaders from Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway.
Mr. Obama will arrive Thursday in St. Petersburg. The summit comes at a tense moment for human rights in Russia because of a new law that criminalizes promotion of homosexual behavior if children might be exposed. Mr. Obama has spoken out against the measure.
Several human rights activists in Russia said Mr. Obama has invited them to meet with him Thursday. "Russia's leadership needs to hear from its G-20 partners that its crackdown does not serve, but instead contradicts, the interests of an open society," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch.