LOS CABOS, Mexico – President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and expressed support for a political transition in an attempt by the leaders to find common ground on the most contentious issue confronting them.
“We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future,” Obama and Putin said in a joint statement released after a two-hour meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit.
The meeting, their first since Putin’s inauguration last month, came as tensions between the U.S. and Russia have flared, in particular over Syria. Russia, a longtime ally and arms supplier of Syria, has refused to join the West in calling for President Bashar Assad’s ouster, and Putin has blamed much of the ongoing violence in Syria on Assad’s opponents, whom he has labeled “extremist.” U.S. officials have demanded Assad step down, citing his violent crackdown against government opponents.
Russia would like to head off a military intervention similar to the NATO-led one in Libya. The statement issued Monday included language that appears aimed at that concern. It noted support for the peace plan brokered by United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan, including “moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.”
Although there was no breakthrough, Putin’s high-profile endorsement of a transition suggested Russia may be willing to look ahead to a Syria without Assad at the helm. Russian diplomats recently have suggested their government is seeking a solution not necessarily tied to Assad’s continued control.
U.S. officials on Monday pointed to the statement as progress, although it was not clear whether Putin was shifting his position. “I think the common ground is coalescing around the notion of elevating a political transition within Syria as an urgent priority for the national community,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
Addressing reporters after their meeting, Putin said he and Obama had been able to “find many commonalities” on international affairs, including Syria. Obama acknowledged the need to “find constructive ways to manage through any bilateral tensions.”
The two appeared cordial, if not overly friendly, and reporters noted their apparent lack of eye contact or interaction as each addressed the media.
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, dismissed the body language, saying the chilly presence was typical of Putin, a former KGB officer. “That’s the way he looks, that’s the way he acts,” he said. “I thought the chemistry was very businesslike.”
Obama had a better relationship with Putin’s predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, with whom he had a casual rapport. Medvedev even came to the president’s defense earlier this year by tearing into Mitt Romney after Obama’s opponent described Russia as the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
Putin, for his part, abruptly pulled out of the G-8 Summit held last month at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, snubbing Obama on his home turf.
The increased friction heightened skepticism about Obama’s much-touted “reset” of relations between the two countries, a major diplomatic priority. The standoff over Syria was the most obvious sign of trouble.
McFaul said the leaders spent about a third of their time discussing the conflict. The rest of the meeting was spent on a larger portfolio of issues, and the White House was eager to point to areas of cooperation. They include ratification of a new START Treaty and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.