The focus of world leaders gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia for the G-20 summit is supposed to be global economic issues, but the debate over how to respond to the alleged chemical weapon use in Syria is dominating the headlines.
President Barack Obama is not scheduled to meet with host Russian President Vladimir Putin since Russia agreed to harbor U.S. national security leaker Edward Snowden weeks ago. But Obama administration officials say there may be some opportunity for Putin, who remains unconvinced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime executed the Sarin gas attack that left more than 1,400 dead, and Obama to informally discuss the issue.
"The past practice at these summits is you do end up having discussions on the margins of the meeting about other global security issues," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters in a press briefing. "I certainly anticipate the president will have interactions with President Putin even as we don't have a formal meeting scheduled."
Following a preliminary stop in Sweden, Obama arrived at the G-20 in St. Petersburg Thursday morning, and like other world leaders was greeted by Putin. The two exchanged smiles and a handshake and chatted briefly, according to the White House pool report, before Obama entered Konstantinovsky Palace.
In addition to formal G-20 sessions and a working dinner with global leaders, Obama is scheduled to meet with LGBT groups while in Russia. Rhodes said Obama specifically wanted to show his support for the gay community in Russia as a result of recent anti-gay laws passed.
"Given our serious concerns with some of the recent laws that have been passed and restrictions on activity for gays and lesbians within Russia, we felt it was important to ensure that we were including their voices in a discussion with the president," Rhodes said.
The high-profile event is rife with politics for Obama, who is struggling to garner support for U.S. air strikes in Syria both in the international community and at home. He has asked for congressional approval to move ahead with a targeted Syrian intervention, but faces a skeptical Congress and public opposition to such an effort.
But despite the current prickly nature of the U.S.-Russian relations, Rhodes said he's optimistic the two countries can continue to work together on issues where their interests more closely align.
"Even with the differences we've had – sharp differences on Syria – there's continued cooperation on nuclear security issues, on transit in Afghanistan, on counterterrorism and on global economic issues," he said.