Obama, Putin agree on need to prevent Syrian ‘civil war’

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

President Barack Obama said Monday that he and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agree on the need for a political transition in Syria to prevent the conflict there from escalating into an all-out "civil war."

After huddling for two hours on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, the two leaders seemed eager to paper over rifts on a range of issues—including Syrian leader Bashar Assad's bloody 15-month crackdown on opposition to his rule.

"We discussed Syria, where we agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war, and the kind of horrific events that we've seen over the last several weeks," Obama said after the talks.

"We pledged to work with other international actors, including the United Nations, Kofi Annan and all the interested parties in trying to find a resolution to this problem," Obama told reporters.

The media pool report, crafted by Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal, notes that "Mr. Putin sat expressionless during this part of Mr. Obama's statement. He bit his lip and stared down at the floor."

Putin, who spoke first, said the two leaders had discussed Syria as well as Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and security issues.

"From my perspective, we've been able to find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues," Putin said through an interpreter. "And we'll now further develop our contacts both on a personal level and on the level of our experts involved."But "commonalities" on Syria are few and far between: Washington has sharply escalated its criticism of Moscow for blocking U.N. and Arab League resolutions meant to force Assad to end his forces' repression of the opposition. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to Assad's regime, and the White House pressed Putin's administration to halt weapons shipments to Syria, which it has supplied for decades.

Russia has shown little inclination to bow to the Obama administration's pressure, and even leveled its own counter-accusation: that Washington has been arming Syria's rebels. Obama spokesman Jay Carney forcefully denied that charge.

Russia and China, as veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, can block any resolutions there. It was unclear whether the relatively cordial words spoken in Los Cabos would translate into action.

The White House released a written joint statement in which Obama and Putin called for "an immediate cessation of all violence" in Syria and expressed support for a peace plan crafted by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Carney has said in the past that Syria has failed to implement any of the key measures in that blueprint.

But the written statement urged steps toward a "political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity."

"We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future," it said.

The two leaders were meeting for the first time since Russian voters returned Putin to the Kremlin. Obama had a good personal rapport with former President Dmitry Medvedev, but officials on both sides have done little to conceal that the Obama-Putin dynamic is frostier.

Still, Putin described Monday's discussion as "very meaningful." He thanked Obama for his support for Russia's accession to the WTO, which he said would "help to further develop the economic relations between our two countries, to promote the creation of jobs in both countries.

And the Russian leader invited Obama to visit Moscow—a trip that cannot practically occur before the November elections. Obama has already said he will miss a summit Putin will host in Vladivostock right around the time of the Democratic nominating convention. And Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have been hammering Obama's Russia policy, describing it as all give and no get.

Obama has said that his "reset" in relations got Moscow to cooperate more closely on economic sanctions meant to force Iran to bow to pressure to halt its suspect nuclear program, and secured Russian help with opening supply routes for NATO-led troops in Afghanistan.

"We, in fact, did have a candid, thoughtful and thorough conversation on a whole range of bilateral and international issues," Obama said.

"We agreed that there's still time and space to resolve diplomatically the issue of Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons, as well as its interest in developing peaceful nuclear power," Obama said.

"Mr. President, I look forward to visiting Russia again, and I look forward to hosting you in the United States," Obama said.

The president alluded to "areas of disagreement" on strategic issues and said he and Putin agreed "that we can find constructive ways to manage through any bilateral tensions."

"We discussed a range of strategic issues, including missile defense, and resolved to continue to work through some of the difficult problems involved there," said Obama.

Obama drew heavy Republican fire when he told Medvedev in March that he would have "more flexibility" on issues like missile defense after November's election.

Russia opposes the deployment of American missile defense assets in countries it considers part of its traditional sphere of influence. American officials have taken pains to emphasize that the system targets so-called rogue states like Iran, not Russia.