SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — President Barack Obama pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday over arms shipments to Syria’s government but emerged with only a general agreement on the need to end violence in the country.
The two men met on the sidelines of a global summit as tension mounts over Russia’s aid to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.S. last week accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Syrian government. The Obama administration has rejected pressure to send arms to anti-government rebels in Syria.
Meeting for the first time since Putin reclaimed Russia’s presidency in March, the two men sought to inject some bonhomie when they appeared before reporters, with Putin inviting Obama to visit Moscow. But Putin sat expressionless as Obama talked about what Putin called “the Syria affair,” biting his lip and staring down at the floor. Putin was terse – Obama spoke nearly four times as long.
“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. He said the two had a “candid, thoughtful and thorough conversation" on a number of issues.
In his brief remarks to reporters, Putin said the pair was able to find “many commonalities” on Syria and other issues, though Russia has twice led vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions denouncing Assad’s crackdown.
The remarks made no mention of Assad or Obama’s call for him to relinquish power. Still, U.S. officials insisted the two leaders made progress during two hours of talks, the bulk of which were devoted to Syria.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama pressed Putin on Russian arms shipment to Syria, expressing the U.S. belief that “continued arm sales to the regime only perpetuate the conflict.” Russia has insisted the arms it supplies aren’t being used to quash anti-government rebels.
“We’ll be focusing on trying to do whatever we can behind the (U.N. plan),” said U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, referring to a peace plan put together by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “I expect you will see other things in the coming days.”
After the meeting on the sidelines of a gathering of world leaders, the two issued a joint statement, declaring U.S.-Russian cooperation in areas including economic engagement, nuclear security, regional conflicts, counterterrorism and counternarcotics.
In Syria, they called for “moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system. We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.”
While their statement on Syria did not break new ground, the two leaders sought to underscore broad agreements on other issues with the joint statement, said Matt Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“It’s damage control. ‘Here is as far as we’re going to go,’” Rojansky said of the discussions on Syria. “But the bigger statement, it’s a reminder of how much else is going right in the relationship. There is a lot of cooperation going on.”
The talks were complicated for Obama by domestic politics, with Republicans renewing charges that Obama’s effort to “reset” the relationship with Russia had failed. “With violence escalating, Russia sends ships to Syria and Obama continues to wait for a diplomatic breakthrough," said a statement from Republican National Committee titled “The Big Fail.”
The leaders also are at odds over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a planned U.S. missile-defense system for Europe.
But Obama told reporters after the meeting that he and Putin “emphasized our shared approach” to Iran and “agreed that there’s still time and space to resolve diplomatically” the issue of Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons. He said the two leaders would need to build on their successes on issues such as trade and to find “constructive ways to manage through any bilateral tensions.”
Relations with Russia are but one troubling foreign policy area for the administration, with the economic crisis in Europe expected to overshadow other deliberations at the two-day summit that closes Tuesday.
Obama, though, said he was confident it would be a “very productive summit” and called Sunday’s election results in Greece a “positive prospect” for the country staying in the eurozone and climbing out of debt.
“The world is concerned about the slowing of growth that has taken place,” said Obama, who faces criticism from Republicans for the pace of growth of the U.S. economy. “Now is the time . . . to make sure that all of us join to do what’s necessary to stabilize the world financial system, to avoid protectionism, to ensure that we are working hand in hand to both grow the economy and create jobs while taking a responsible approach long term and medium term towards our fiscal structures.”
Obama, who has pushed European leaders to include growth measures as well as a strategy of belt-tightening, held what the White House characterized as a “productive” meeting Monday afternoon with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and he was expected to meet with European leaders late Monday after dinner.
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