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Presidents Obama and Putin share icy encounter over Syria

June 17, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland -- Sharp divisions over the civil war in Syria led to an icy encounter Monday between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom U.S. officials view as a major hurdle in their drive to force Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

The two leaders held their first face-to-face meeting in a year at the summit of the world’s richest countries days after Obama deepened U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. Aides said the CIA would begin supplying arms and ammunition to some opposition forces in hopes of shifting the military balance away from Assad.

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. Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, has sent weapons to Assad's forces and is considering deliveries of sophisticated antiaircraft missile batteries.

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 hoped “to solve the situation peacefully” 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.”

Obama arrived at the Lough Erne resort for the annual meeting of the Group of 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 hopes for a breakthrough at the G-8. The Russians have little incentive to push Assad into peace negotiations while his forces have the upper hand on the battlefield. Obama’s reluctant and delayed decision to arm the rebels 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, at the G-20 summit a year ago 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 straight ahead, unsmiling, as the other spoke, although Putin sometimes stared at the floor.

The White House offered another take on the rapport between the leaders. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called the two-hour meeting “businesslike.”

Rhodes said the leaders spent about one-fifth of their time on Syria, and he tried to focus on areas of agreement. Putin and Obama agreed 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 Tehran’s nuclear development program.

Rhodes also 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 100 to 150 people. The White House has not released the evidence or described how it was obtained, or by whom.

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.

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