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St Petersburg - World leaders meet on Thursday at a G20 summit in Russia where US President Barack Obama will strive to bridge deep divisions over his push for military action against the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.
With pressure mounting on the G20 to make concrete progress towards ending the conflict, the United Nations announced that its special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was on his way to Russia to push for peace.
Obama cleared the first hurdle on Wednesday in his race to win domestic congressional backing for punitive strikes, but is also seeking broader international support.
Speaking during a trip to Stockholm, he said the world had set “a red line” for Syria and it could not now remain silent in the face of the alleged chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, a fierce opponent of the proposed military action, warned on the eve of the summit he is hosting in St Petersburg that it would be unacceptable for the West to go ahead with military action against Damascus without UN Security Council approval.
The Kremlin demanded “convincing” proof that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people.
According to US intelligence, more than 1 400 people living in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were killed in the strike, which involved the use of the sarin nerve gas.
Beyond convincing Russia, Obama has a tough sell ahead elsewhere, with China - another veto-wielding Security Council member state - having already expressed its “grave concerns” over unilateral military strikes.
In St Petersburg, Deputy Minister of Finance Zhu Guangyao emphasised that “China believes that only a political solution... is the way to solve the Syria problem”, and warned of a negative impact on the world economy in case of military action.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly ruled out her country's participation in any US-led military strike against Assad's regime, while the British parliament has also rejected the idea.
But Obama said in Sweden: “I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line,” referring to international rules banning the use of chemical weapons, even in case of war.
The Syria conflict has still not been formally pencilled into the agenda of the G20 summit on the shores of the Gulf of Finland at a former Imperial palace outside St Petersburg.
But discussions about the Syria crisis still threaten to completely overshadow leaders' efforts to promote a crucial economic agenda of stimulating growth and cracking down on tax avoidance.
UN Arab-League envoy Brahimi is on his way to Russia to help Secretary General Ban Ki-moon push on margins of the G20 summit for an international peace conference on Syria, the UN spokesperson said.
The United Nations is making a desperate new bid for a Syria peace conference even as the United States prepares a possible military strike, according to diplomats.
“It is time for the parties to stop fighting and start talking. The Syrian people need peace,” Ban said in a lecture at Saint Petersburg State University Wednesday.
Obama will hold meetings on the sidelines of the G20 with French President Francois Hollande, the main foreign backer of a strike on Syria, as well as the leaders of China and Japan.
While no formal bilateral sit-down meeting is planned with Putin, a White House official suggested there would likely be some kind of more informal conversation.
Russian and US ties have sunk to a new low since the Cold War, over deep seated divisions over Syria, Russia's granting of asylum to US fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden and a string of Russian laws seen as repressive.
Putin told members of his human rights council in the Kremlin that only the UN Security Council can give approval for the use of force against another state and any attack without UN blessing would amount to an “aggression”.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told AFP that his government was ready to retaliate in case of foreign military action.
“The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War 3. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country,” Muqdad said.
International aid agency Oxfam called on the G20 to overcome their differences on Syria saying: “The timing of this G20 is critical. Leaders in St Petersburg must not let ordinary Syrians down.”
Western military action against Syria had looked imminent last week, but Obama deferred the move and is seeking congressional backing in a vote scheduled for next Monday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday gave its backing by a 10-7 vote for the use of force.
Senate leaders said the full chamber will vote next week on the motion, when Obama is expected to carry the day.
The amended resolution authorises military intervention with a 90-day deadline and bars US boots on the ground for combat purposes.
The House of Representatives will also begin its deliberations next week.
Since British lawmakers voted down a bid for strikes against the regime, Washington has found a firm partner in France.
Now in its third year, the popular uprising against the Assad regime has cost more than 100 000 lives. - AFP