Obama, Putin differ on Syria during tense talks
ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — President Obama differed sharply with Russia’s leader over the Syrian civil war in an icy encounter Monday illustrating how difficult it may be to drive Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, even after some rebel groups begin to receive U.S. weaponry.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first face-to-face meeting in a year at the Group of 8 summit of the world’s richest countries days after Obama deepened U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. Aides said last week that the CIA would begin supplying arms and ammunition to some opposition forces in hopes of shifting the military balance away from Assad.
Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, has sent weapons to Assad’s forces and is considering deliveries of sophisticated antiaircraft missile batteries. U.S. officials view Russia’s continued support for Assad as a major obstacle.
In comments to reporters, Obama and Putin expressed support for still-unscheduled Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva, but offered no sign of progress in ending a war that has killed at least 93,000 people.
Obama noted that he and Putin had “differing perspectives” on Syria but said they both sought to reduce the bloodshed and secure Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. “We want to try to resolve the issue through political means if possible,” he said.
“Of course our opinions don’t coincide,” Putin responded. But he said he sought a peaceful settlement and said they “agreed to push the parties to the negotiations table.”
Obama tried to lighten the mood by joking about their favorite sports. He cited Putin’s expertise in judo and “my declining skills in basketball.” Then he added, “And we both agree that as you get older, it takes more time to recover.”
Putin cracked a brief smile before adding an awkward admission of the tension: “The president wants to relax me with his statement.”
Joint efforts to convene a peace conference have been hampered by calculations on both sides of the Syrian conflict. Syrian opposition figures agree that Assad must be removed from power — but lack unity on much else. Syrian officials say they are willing to attend the conference, but they have little incentive to bargain because they have been making gains on the battlefield.
On Monday, trying to capitalize on the recent capture of the strategic town of Qusair, pro-Assad forces attacked rebels in and around the divided commercial hub of Aleppo.
Obama arrived at the Lough Erne resort for the annual meeting of the G-8 industrialized nations a day after Putin had roundly denounced Western support for the Syrian rebels. After meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, Putin described the anti-Assad forces as lawless thugs and cannibals.
“I believe one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public gaze and cameras,” Putin said, a reference to video posted online that appeared to show a rebel fighter cutting open the body of a loyalist soldier. “Are these the people you want to support?”
Even before that remark, Western officials had low expectations for a breakthrough at the G-8. The Russians have little incentive to push Assad into peace negotiations while his forces are advancing on the battlefield. Obama’s reluctant, delayed decision to arm some rebel groups is viewed as an attempt to turn the tide in favor of the opposition and force the Syrian leader into talks.
The last time Obama and Putin met, in Los Cabos, Mexico, they barely made eye contact and seemed uncomfortable sitting next to each other. They were equally frosty Monday, sitting side by side in armchairs during their 12-minute meeting with reporters. Each looked mostly straight ahead, unsmiling, as the other spoke. Putin sometimes stared at the floor.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes called the two-hour G-8 meeting “businesslike.” Rhodes said the leaders spent about one-fifth of their time on Syria.
Before the meeting, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned against efforts to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, citing the campaign to drive Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi from power in 2011.
“We don’t want such a repetition in regard to the Syrian conflict, and I think that we won’t allow such a scenario in principle,” he said.
Igor Korotchenko, editor of Russia’s National Defense monthly, said the U.S. and its allies should remember that Russia might supply sophisticated S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Syria. “Our [S-300] contract with Syria is valid, and Putin recently implied it will be implemented if a need arises,” Korotchenko said.
Critics have taken Obama to task for wavering while Syria descended into civil war.
In a television interview taped Sunday but aired Monday, Obama moved beyond his previous argument that Assad’s use of chemical weapons had led him to arm the opposition. The president argued that the U.S. had a “regional interest” in stopping refugees from destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
Obama pushed back, however, against taking more aggressive military action. He suggested that sending U.S. warplanes to impose a no-fly zone would require major military intervention.
“Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations, then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East,” he said in an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose.
Rhodes acknowledged that the Russians were “more skeptical” of evidence that led the White House to declare last week that Assad’s forces had used small amounts of sarin nerve gas in attacks that killed between 100 and 150 people. The White House has not released the evidence or described how it was obtained or by whom.
Putin and Obama did agree to a new version of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a post-Cold War nonproliferation program that secured or dismantled nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in former Soviet states.
And both expressed cautious optimism that the surprise election of Hassan Rowhani, a moderate cleric, as president of Iran may yield opportunities to defuse the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear development program.
But the impasse over Syria undermined Cameron’s attempt to demonstrate loose camaraderie at the two-day G-8 meeting. The summit at this lush lakeshore golf haven was billed as a chance for world leaders to talk casually and privately — away from protests and prying eyes — about economic initiatives. Cameron placed trade and cracking down on corporate tax evasion at the top of the formal agenda.
Leaders quickly claimed progress on the first item. Before the summit formally opened, they emerged from a midday meeting to announce that they would begin negotiations next month on a transatlantic trade agreement.
Wearing blazers but no ties, Obama and other leaders expressed optimism about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a long-awaited free trade pact that officials hope will bolster exports.
Obama began his day — and his three-day European trip — holding up a successful peace negotiation as a model. Speaking to high school students in Belfast, he celebrated the 1998 Good Friday agreement to end the long, bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
“For you are the first generation in this land to inherit more than just hardened attitudes and the bitter prejudices of the past, you’re an inheritor of a just and hard-earned peace,” Obama said at the Belfast Waterfront Hall auditorium.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.
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