In their first meeting following renewed tensions between the U.S. and Russia, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin called Monday for an end to the violence in Syria and said there’s still time for diplomacy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
As world leaders gathered for the two-day Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, much of the focus was on the European economic crisis, which could deflate Mr. Obama’s re-election hopes.
But in the most anticipated meeting of the day, Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama agreed on the need to end the violence in Syria, although Mr. Putin didn’t elaborate in his remarks to reporters, saying only, “[W]e’ve been able to find many commonalities” on issues including “the Syrian affair.”
The two presidents met in a two-hour, closed-door session as the Kremlin prepared to dispatch ships and marines to Syria and a few weeks after Mr. Putin snubbed Mr. Obama by skipping an international conference at Camp David.
Mr. Obama said they pledged to work with the United Nations and other parties to stop the killings of civilians.
“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 deaths that we’ve seen over the last several weeks,” Mr. Obama said.
As the U.S. leader spoke, Mr. Putin was biting his lip and staring at the floor.
The Obama administration last week accused Moscow of contributing to the Syrian government’s slaying of pro-democracy protesters by selling military helicopters to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Blistering McCain speech
On Monday in Washington, Sen. John McCain again criticized the Obama administration on Syria and Russia, accusing the Kremlin of helping Syria commit atrocities against civilians and assailing the White House for what he said was its failure to lead on Syria.
“To say they are ‘leading from behind’ is too generous,” the Arizona Republican said at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “That suggests they are leading. They are just behind.”
However, the senator said, Russia is “unlikely to ever support a policy of regime change in Syria.”
The Kremlin’s decades-long relationship with Damascus goes back to the communist era, when the Soviet Union armed Syria as an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. proxy and used the Arab country to funnel weapons and money to terrorist groups.
Even today, without that ideological aim, Russia still sees Syrian weapons sales and contracting as a major source of revenue, still has its only Mediterranean naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, and still views Syria as its stage from which to influence Middle East politics and maintain the Kremlin’s great-power status.
Mr. McCain noted Monday that Russia had dispatched two warships and a unit of marines to secure its Tartus base and was delivering anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to help Mr. Assad. “Clearly, this is not a fair fight,” he said.
Russia’s Interfax news agency, quoting an unidentified Russian naval source, first reported Monday that the warships were “preparing for a nonroutine departure” for Tartus.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week accused Russia of sending helicopter gunships to the Assad regime, engaging in a war of words over the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Russia says it has only refurbished and returned helicopters it sold to Syria a year ago.
“Whether these are new helicopters or old ones that Assad sent to Russia to be refurbished and have the blood washed off of them is a distinction without a difference,” Mr. McCain said.
Over the weekend, the United Nations announced that it was halting monitoring operations in Syria because of the worsening security situation in the country. More than 14,000 people have died since the start of the anti-Assad uprising 15 months ago, activists said.
In Mexico, Mr. Obama defended working with Mr. Putin on another Middle Eastern country — Iran — saying he and Mr. Putin “emphasized our shared approach” as members of the ongoing negotiations of the so-called “P5+1” group seeking to achieve full international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Putin never uttered the word “Iran.”
Their statement also touched briefly on another source of tension — a proposed missile-defense shield in Europe. The U.S. and its NATO allies are proceeding with plans for a shield over Russian objections.
At a summit in March, Mr. Obama was caught in a “hot mic” moment asking Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president at the time, for more breathing room on missile-shield negotiations until after the U.S. elections in November. Unaware that a reporter was listening, Mr. Obama told the Russian that he would have more “flexibility” after his presumed re-election, sparking a storm of criticism at home.
In their joint statement Monday, Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin said that “despite differences,” the two nations agreed “to continue a joint search for solutions to challenges in the field of missile defense.”
They also urged North Korea “not to commit acts that would escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” a reference to the North’s launch in April of a rocket that disintegrated shortly after liftoff. Analysts said the missile was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The European economy is expected to dominate the two-day G-20 summit, though European officials downplayed any hope of a quick solution to the worsening problems in the 17-nation eurozone and bristled at the suggestion that they need help.
“Frankly, we are not coming here to receive lessons in terms of democracy or in terms of how to run our economy,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
The election Sunday of parties supporting Greece’s financial bailout package “indicates a positive prospect” for forming a new government in Athens and for “working constructively with their international partners,” Mr. Obama told reporters.
Finance ministers from around the world awaited the outcome as Greeks voted either to accept the terms of their $140 billion bailout or to default on their debt and quit the 17-nation eurozone.
The pro-bailout New Democracy party took nearly 30 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. The party still needs to form a coalition government, but the other pro-bailout parties seemed to have done well enough to piece together a majority.
Mr. Obama said the election means that Greeks “can continue on the path of reform and do so in a way that also offers the prospects for the Greek people to succeed and prosper.”
“And we are going to be working … with our European partners, and with all countries, to make sure that we’re contributing so that the economy grows, the situation stabilizes, confidence returns to the markets and, most importantly, we’re giving our people the chance if they work hard to succeed and do well,” the president said.
Mr. Obama has been urging European leaders to resolve their debt crisis, but he has few tools at his disposal beyond persuasion to help resolve it, even though the threat a worst-case scenario poses to the U.S. economy could jeopardize his re-election chances.
The president has been trying to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he met one-on-one Monday, to focus more on immediate economic stimulus measures rather than deficit reduction.
Europe is America’s largest trading partner, and the downturn overseas has affected the sluggish U.S. economy.
The summit will enable the leaders of the participating industrialized nations to take “one important step in a series of steps that are going to be required to continue to improve global economic prospects,” Mr. Obama said.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Dave Boyer is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times. A native of Allentown, Pa., Boyer worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 2002 to 2011 and also has covered Congress for the Times. He is a graduate of Penn State University. Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.
Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.
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