US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday sought to muster European Union support for military strikes against Syria, after a G20 summit failed to resolve bitter international divisions on the issue.
Kerry went into informal talks with the EU’s 28 foreign ministers in Lithuania, which currently holds the EU’s rotating chair, with the bloc itself sharply split on Syria and most nations highly reticent over military action.
Washington’s top diplomat pressed the case for punitive action against Syria after what the United States says was a chemical weapons attack by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad near Damascus.
A State Department official said Kerry expected “a fairly detailed discussion about our thinking” but noted “that there are divisions within the EU about what is the exact sequencing of the need for an international response.”
EU diplomats reported intense negotiations taking place to seek a consensus on Syria with France and Denmark supportive of a US-led strike but Germany, Sweden and others refusing to endorse action without a UN mandate or a debate within a UN framework.
The talks take place after US President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin failed to bridge their differences at the G20 summit of top global powers in Saint Petersburg.
Just over half of the G20 states signed up to a statement calling for a “strong” response to last month’s alleged chemical attack.
France, the only EU nation to have offered to take part in an attack, was one of four European states -- with Britain, Italy and Spain - among the 11 nations that signed the statement.
It called for a response that would “send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated”.
It did not specify military action and European diplomats said the language remained vague.
But while Obama said the world could not “stand idly by”, Putin warned it would be “outside the law” to attack without the UN’s blessing.
Putin also said Russia would “help Syria” if the US were to strike, pointing to existing military, economic and humanitarian cooperation.
Washington is evacuating non-essential embassy staff from Beirut and urging Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon and southern Turkey.
As well as the stubborn international differences, the US administration is still scrambling to win backing from Congress for any action against Syria.
Congress reconvenes on Monday and Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday. But he acknowledged that convincing Congress to back military action against the Syrian regime would be a “heavy lift”.
“I understand the scepticism,” the US president said.
Obama made several calls to Republican and Democratic lawmakers during his flight home from Russia, a senior administration official said, declining to elabourate.
The world is still waiting for a much-anticipated report by United Nations inspectors on the deadly August 21 attacks that left hundreds dead.
At the G20, French President Francois Hollande vowed to wait for the UN report before joining any military action, a decision welcomed by Germany.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged the UN to publish its report “as quickly as possible” to help Europe’s divided leaders determine a response.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters it was essential to wait for the UN report as “it will be the best picture we can get from any source”.
“The Indians, the Brazilians, the Chinese and others don’t really think that information from US intelligence is enough, and that’s the world we live in,” he said.
Russia and China - both veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council - have on three occasions voted down resolutions that would have put pressure on Assad.
On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry warned the United States against targeting Syria’s chemical arsenal in any attacks.
Later on Saturday, Kerry is due to fly to Paris for talks with French officials. He will meet Arab League leaders there on Sunday to update them on Syria and on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
He will travel on to London for talks late on Sunday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, before flying home Monday.
Pope Francis has appealed for a peaceful solution to the crisis, calling on the world to unite on Saturday in a day of fasting and prayer for Syria. He will lead the way with a five-hour vigil in St Peter’s Square.