Syria was foremost in the minds of world leaders
gathering for an economic summit in St Petersburg Thursday, as US President
Barack Obama planned to make his case for a military strike against Bashar
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the host, has been in a showdown with Obama and France's President Francois Hollande on the matter. He dismisses their evidence of chemical weapons use by his Syrian allies.
The body language of the men as they greeted one another at the Constantine Palace was telling. Putin kept a serious face for Obama's arrival. Obama strode forward with an outstretched hand and a smile, while Hollande gave only a curt nod and short handshake.
In Syria, rebels alleged that the regime has been relocating chemical weapons to populated areas ahead of impending US military strikes.
Obama was to make his case for political and diplomatic support at dinner Thursday, but was said to not expect unanimous backing.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Obama would continue to stress evidence of chemical weapons use, despite Putin's doubts. He said it was unlikely that Russia would change course on blocking action in the UN Security Council, as Putin suggested in an interview Wednesday.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov maintained Russia does not "block" the UN Security Council's work on Syria, it just wants its members to be more objective.
"We call on our partners to look at the situation (in Syria) responsibly ... and not to rush to a strike for some reason," he said.
The spokesman also said that, while Moscow is not convinced by the evidence presented by the US for a chemical weapons attack in Syria last month, that does not mean it is accusing Washington of fabricating evidence. "I just said we need more convincing proof," he said.
EU Council President Herman van Rompuy and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were among those in St Petersburg speaking out against military intervention in Syria.
"While we respect recent calls for action, we need to move forward the UN process," van Rompuy told reporters.
He added that the international community cannot remain idle in order to prevent "a dreadful precedent."
Separately, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed that US Secretary of State John Kerry would join EU ministers in Vilnius this week to discuss the Syria question.
"I have not heard anyone say to me this hasn't been a chemical attack," Ashton said, adding that there seemed to be a "huge amount of evidence" - even if some countries "may take a different view of who the perpetrator was."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the discussion of the Syria crisis, but warned against high expectations.
She said the ongoing war can only end with political means, but that the positions of Russia and the US were too far apart.
"I don't see a common stance in the UN Security Council," she said, noting Germany would not participate in any military intervention and would only offer humanitarian and political assistance.
Joining the leaders in St Petersburg is Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy on Syria, who is making a surprise visit to push for stalled peace talks on Syria's 29-month conflict in Geneva.
Elsewhere, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged the international community to "overcome its divisions over Syria," as it had a responsibility to enforce the international ban on using chemical weapons.
"Not to act would also be to act," Rasmussen said. He said he could envisage a "short targeted tailored military operation" which would not require NATO involvement.
Pope Francis joined calls for restraint.
Opposition rebels and Western diplomats meanwhile alleged that Al-Assad's regime has begun a mass relocation of army units and chemical weapons, allegedly embedding some 10,000 soldiers and several convoys believed to be containing chemical weapons in residential centres in southern Syria.
Western diplomats based in Jordan confirmed that recent intelligence has revealed a flurry of activity at known chemical weapons sites within Syria in the past week, leading experts to believe that Syria has relocated its alleged weapons stockpiles.
Such a move might prompt the dispatch of joint Jordanian-US special forces currently based near the southern Syrian border to secure the weapons.
In other developments Thursday, rebels claim to have seized the mostly Christian town of Maalula, north east of Damascus.
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