President Barack Obama arrived Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Group of 20 economic summit -- which appears likely to be less about global economic affairs than an impending U.S. strike in Syria.
Obama briefly shook hands when met by G-20 host, and key Syria ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a steely exchange that lasted less than 20 seconds. The two are at odds over U.S. plans to strike Syria for an alleged chemical weapons attack the U.S. says was carried out by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. has said more than 1,400 people including at least 400 children were killed in the Aug. 21 attack, for which Assad has vehemently denied responsibility.
While at the economic summit, Obama has been lobbying lawmakers in Washington by phone to convince them that a limited attack on Syria is necessary, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.
In an MSNBC interview televised later Thursday evening, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the president's stance on punishing Assad for the alleged use of sarin gas on civilians.
"We are trying to enforce the international norm" against chemical weapons, Kerry said. "That's all this military strike seeks to do."
Also Thursday, Vice President Biden and Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken hosted a bicameral meeting on Syria with members of Congress in the White House Situation Room, and Biden made calls to members on both sides of the aisle in the House and in the Senate.
Obama's presence in Russia also puts him in the same country as National Security Agency leaker 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 Putin can't get along.
The first round at the summit seemingly went to Putin, as China, the European Union, the BRICS -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and Pope Francis warned of the dangers of military intervention without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
The pope, who leads the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged the G-20 leaders in a letter to "lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution."
Putin, in an Associated Press interview ahead of the summit, played down personal tensions with Obama.
"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."
The White House has stressed that while the two will cross paths at various meetings, Obama will not be meeting one-on-one with Putin during his stay in St. Petersburg.
Still struggling to convince lawmakers at home about taking action against Syria, Obama will seek to win over world leaders reluctant to get drawn in to another U.S.-led military intervention in a Mideast nation. Although Syria isn't formally on the agenda for the summit, the country's bloody civil war is primed to become a central topic of conversation.
Meanwhile, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy warned on Thursday against a military response in Syria, aligning the group more closely with Putin than Obama in how best to respond to the alleged chemical attack. Van Rompuy called the attack "abhorrent" and a crime against humanity, but said a military strike would not help resolve the crisis.
"Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed, grave violations of human rights and the far-reaching destruction of Syria," he said.