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Syria stalemate and Philippine leader’s cursing vex Obama on Asia trip

Obama
President Obama vetoed legislation the White House warns could lead to countries hauling U.S. diplomats, service members and companies into courts.
(Narendra Shrestra / European Pressphoto Agency)

Lack of trust between the U.S. and Russia is getting in the way of possible cooperation to stop the violence in Syria, President Obama said Monday, adding that he nevertheless plans to keep trying against the odds.

“Given the gaps of trust that exist,” Obama said, “that’s a tough negotiation.”

After a 90-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a world leaders summit in Hangzhou, China, Obama told reporters that “we haven’t yet closed the gaps” between the two sides.

Talks between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov aimed at finding at least a limited agreement on Syria could take “several more days,” Obama said. 

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The Obama administration is hoping for an agreement that, at minimum, would end the fighting in and around the city of Aleppo, in northern Syria, and allow for humanitarian aid to civilians there.

In his own news conference after the meeting, Putin said that he believed the talks between U.S. and Russian diplomats were on the “right track” and that in the “next few days” an agreement could be reached. 

In the meantime, as he headed for Laos, the next stop on his weeklong trip to Asia, Obama canceled a scheduled meeting with the president of the Philippines, after the latter publicly cursed while warning him to not raise questions about reported death squad operations in his country against suspected drug dealers.

Earlier in the day, the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, said during a news conference that if Obama were to raise the issue of extrajudicial killings during their scheduled meeting, “son of a bitch, I will swear at you.”

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As the leader of a sovereign country, he is answerable only to the Philippine people, Duterte said.

Asked during his own news conference about Duterte’s remarks, Obama referred to the Philippine leader as a “colorful guy” and said he had told his staff to investigate whether a meeting with Duterte would still be “productive.”

Fighting drug trafficking is “tough,” Obama said, but the U.S. will always assert the need to have due process “and to engage in that fight against drugs in a way that’s consistent with basic international norms.”

“If and when we have a meeting,” Obama said, “this is something that’s going to be brought up.”

A few hours later, as Obama reached Laos, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price announced that the meeting with Duterte had been canceled. Obama will, instead, meet with the president of South Korea, Price said.  

The tiff with Duterte provided a reminder of the unpredictable events that can arise at even the most scripted of international meetings. The protracted talks with the Russians, by contrast, followed a pattern that has become grindingly familiar.

In their talks Monday, Obama and Putin “clarified the remaining gaps” in the negotiations about how they can cooperate to reduce violence in Syria, provide humanitarian assistance and focus on Al Qaeda and the militant group Islamic State in Syria, according to a senior administration official familiar with the talks, who described them to reporters on condition of anonymity.

The outstanding gaps, the official said, were “technical,” having to do with the implementation of the agreement.

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“There was some backsliding from some of the recent discussions in Geneva” between Kerry and Lavrov, the official said, adding that on Sunday there was a “narrowing back” to the positions the parties had taken coming into the meeting.

At the news conference, Obama said a “dangerous dynamic” had taken hold in discussions over Syria in which the Russians sought to delegitimize any group that is fighting their ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. backs some of the rebel groups against Assad, seeing them as relative moderates. Obama and other U.S. officials would like to see Russia focus on what Obama referred to as “common enemies,” specifically the Islamic State militants and Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Russia, however, considers several of the groups the U.S. backs to be “terrorist” organizations and, therefore, legitimate targets.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

Follow @cparsons for news about the White House.


UPDATES:

2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information on President Obama’s trip and Vladimir Putin’s remarks.

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The article was originally published at 7:25 a.m.


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