By Luke Baker
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Europe's top officials warned against a military response in Syria on Thursday, aligning themselves more closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin than President Barack Obama in how best to respond to the chemical attack in the Syrian civil war.
While describing the August 21 attack near Damascus, in which an estimated 1,400 people died, as "abhorrent" and a crime against humanity, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said a military strike would not help resolve the crisis.
"There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict," Van Rompuy told reporters ahead of a summit of the Group of 20 countries this week in St Petersburg, when the 2-1/2-year-old conflict in Syria is expected to dominate debate along with discussion on the global economy.
"Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed, grave violations of human rights and the far-reaching destruction of Syria," Van Rompuy said.
"While respecting the recent calls for action, we underscore at the same time the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the U.N. process."
His position, supported by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, would appear to set the European Union at odds with the United States, since Obama has said he is prepared to launch military strikes once he has approval from the U.S. Congress, where votes are expected next week.
It also suggests internal divisions within the European Union. France, which with Britain is the most influential of the EU's 28 member states on foreign policy, has said it will support any military action taken by Washington.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was also keen to support military intervention, but he lost a parliamentary vote on the issue last week and Britain will not take part.
The position set out by Van Rompuy and Barroso effectively calls for the international community to work through the United Nations in determining the response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government.
That is not dissimilar to the line adopted by Putin, a firm ally of Assad, who has condemned the U.S. rush to action and goaded U.S. officials for the mistakes made in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin has also accused NATO of exceeding the bounds of a 2011 U.N. mandate for intervention in Libya.
Van Rompuy said he had no reason to doubt the credibility of the evidence presented by the United States indicating Assad's forces released the chemical weapons. But he said it was essential to wait until U.N. experts had concluded an on-the-ground investigation into the attack with a report.
"I look forward to the information the U.N. secretary general will share with us on this matter later today," he said. "It is important that at least a preliminary report is released as early as possible."
EU foreign ministers meet in Vilnius on Friday and Saturday, when they will discuss the situation in Syria, among other issues. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join them and is expected to push the case for military action.
While France has made clear its support for a U.S.-led response, and Denmark has given similar indications, most other EU member states have either not spoken up or privately have expressed reservations about an armed retaliation.
Barroso said diplomacy, including renewed efforts towards a Syria peace conference in Geneva, was the only way forward.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)