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Syria crisis looms over Obama's Sweden visit

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

US President Barack Obama arrived in Sweden Wednesday for a two-day visit likely to be dominated by the Syria crisis, as the host nation voiced opposition to military strikes against the Damascus regime.

Obama stepped off Air Force One at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport fresh from efforts in Washington to secure bipartisan support for military action to punish President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb last month.

Obama's trip will also take him to the G20 summit in Russia's Saint Petersburg, where White House officials said he would hold meetings with the president of France, the main foreign backer of US strikes on Syria, as well as the leaders of China and Japan.

While no formal bilateral meeting was planned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strong supporter of Assad, a White House official suggested there likely would be some kind of dialogue.

"We would expect the two presidents to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G20," he said.

Putin on Wednesday appeared to soften his stance towards the West over Syria, saying Russia did not exclude agreeing to US-led strikes on the war-torn country if it was proven beyond doubt that Assad's regime had carried out the deadly August 21 chemical attack.

If there was clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them, Russia "will be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way," Putin told state-run Channel One television in an interview ahead of this week's G20 summit.

Obama has emphasised that any action over Syria will be less open-ended than moves undertaken in the Middle East under his predecessor, George W. Bush, saying: "This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan."

Even so, winning over the European nations will be an uphill struggle, as the British parliament demonstrated last week by voting against any strikes on the Syrian regime.

Sweden on Wednesday also struck a cautious note.

"We need to come up with a forceful response," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told local television. "We hope that the (UN) Security Council can agree on this."

Late last week, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said he opposed "military solutions of a conflict which in my opinion should be resolved through political and diplomatic efforts."

Keen not to let the Syria crisis overshadow Obama's visit to Sweden, Bildt sought to focus attention on a wider agenda topped by economic issues.

"The world has noticed that our countries are dynamic economies that are doing relatively well despite the state of the global economy," he said.

Underlining the Nordic theme, Obama will have dinner 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 US government's National Security Agency.

"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. "I will of course also mention this to President Obama."

Sweden's Reinfeldt told Sveriges Radio, the national broadcaster, that the NSA's electronic surveillance programme would "certainly" come up, but hinted towards a non-confrontational approach.

"I think we have to acknowledge that all democracies, even Sweden's, have intelligence agencies that use intelligence gathering to be able to prevent possible terrorist attacks or attacks against public figures," he said.

Obama and Reinfeldt are scheduled to hold a joint press conference at 12:30 GMT.

Also on Obama's schedule Wednesday is 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 will also pay 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 morning, 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.

Meanwhile, around a dozen demonstrators staged a protest near the Swedish parliament, in one of a number of small-scale demos scheduled to coincide with Obama's visit.

Organised by Amnesty International, the peaceful demonstration sought to draw attention to Obama's unfulfilled promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. It featured an activist locked in a cage wearing an orange overall and holding a sign saying "How many more years?"

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130904/syria-crisis-looms-over-obamas-sweden-visit-0