STOCKHOLM (AFP) – President Barack Obama on Wednesday said the world had set “a red line” for Syria and the international community’s credibility was at stake if it did not take action against the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Obama made the remarks after arriving in Sweden for a two-day visit, seeking to generate global backing for military action against Syria on top of his efforts at home to get bipartisan support for military strikes.
“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said in Stockholm, referring to international rules banning the use of chemical weapons, even in case of war. “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”
Obama’s trip will also take him to the G20 summit in Russia’s Saint Petersburg, where he is expected to rally support for or at least acceptance of moves to punish Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged deadly gas attack on a Damascus suburb last month.
White House officials have said Obama will hold meetings on the sidelines of G20 with the president of France, the main foreign backer of U.S. strikes on Syria, as well as the leaders of China and Japan.
While no formal bilateral meeting is planned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strong supporter of Assad, a White House official suggested there likely would be some kind of dialogue.
The President said Wednesday he hoped Putin would change direction on a military intervention in Syria.
“I’m always hopeful… Ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems,” he said.
Putin on Wednesday appeared to soften his stance towards the West over Syria, saying Russia did not exclude agreeing to U.S.-led strikes on the war-torn country if it was proven beyond doubt that Assad’s regime had carried out last month’s chemical attack.
But while reaching out to Putin, Obama also raised a sore point by calling for equal rights for gays, in an apparent reference to new Russian legislation seen as cracking down on homosexuals.
The U.S. and Sweden “share a belief in dignity and equality of every human being. That our daughters deserve the same opportunities as our sons. That our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters must be treated equally under the law,” he said.
Meanwhile, Obama told the briefing in Stockholm that the international community “cannot be silent” in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.
“I discussed our assessment and [Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt] and I are in an agreement that in the face of such barbarism the international community cannot be silent,” he said. “Failing to respond to this attack would only increase the risk of more attacks and the possibility that other countries would use these weapons, as well.”
Obama said he would not repeat the mistakes made in Iraq as his country mulls military action in Syria, adding he believed he would get Congressional backing for strikes.
“I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq. And I am not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence,” he told a briefing in the Swedish capital.
Reinfeldt said at the same press conference that Sweden “condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria in the strongest possible terms.”
“It’s a clear violation of international law. Those responsible should be held accountable,” he said, reiterating that he hoped for a political solution within the framework of the United Nations.
Obama will have dinner later Wednesday with the prime ministers of Norway, Denmark and Iceland as well as the president of Finland — but even here, controversy could arise.
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has said she plans to ask Obama about recent media reports claiming that EU offices were spied on by the U.S. government’s National Security Agency (NSA).
“We have always supported the EU asking the Americans for answers, and I also take it they will get those answers,” she told the daily Berlingske.
Also on Obama’s schedule Wednesday was a visit to the Royal Institute of Technology, widely considered at the cutting edge of research into clean energy and other sustainable technologies.
Looking back at one of modern Sweden’s proudest moments, Obama also paid tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the last stages of the Holocaust in 1944 and 1945.
Obama will meet with the Swedish royal family early Thursday before departing for the G20 in Saint Petersburg.
Downtown Stockholm was unusually quiet Wednesday, as the areas around Grand Hotel, where Obama was staying, and government offices were sealed off for traffic, amid the deployment of a large number of police and security.
A number of small-scale demos are scheduled to coincide with Obama’s visit.