Obama, Putin agree on 'political process' for Syria

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin agreed Monday that Syrians deserve a "political process" to choose their future, but could not frame an immediate plan to end the bloodshed.

As Syrian cities reverberated with shell fire, the US and Russian leaders held their first presidential-level talks, following a sharp public dispute about a US call for the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

"We call for an immediate cessation of all violence," the leaders said in a joint statement issued after their meeting at Mexico's Los Cabos resort.

"We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future."

Obama aides hinted at some subtle movement, saying Russia accepted that a "political process" was needed to end ferocious violence against civilians with which Washington says Assad has forfeited his right to rule.

But they offered few specifics of what they termed "common ground", and certainly no short-term plan to end the fighting emerged from a meeting which endorsed the approach of UN enovy Kofi Annan, author of a tattered peace plan.

Putin "demonstrated an openness and an interest in supporting a political process in the country," US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said.

"We're going to continue to work with the Russians at the international level to bring that about."

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Obama spoke about the need to urgently bring the situation in Syria under control to prevent further deaths.

"Russia and the US understand that both sides (of the Syrian conflict) need to be pushed, and that solving the problem just on one side is unrealistic and has no prospects of finding a solution."

Washington is concerned at Russian arms sales to Syria, which Obama brought up on Monday, and is also frustrated that Moscow is blocking attempts at the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions and perhaps prod Assad out of power.

Russia appears suspicious Washington is bent on regime change in Damascus and is keen not to lose an alliance that dates from the Cold War and offers Moscow naval bases with access to the eastern Mediterranean.

The two presidents, in a closely watched first meeting since Putin returned to the Kremlin, did unite to call on Iran to live up to its nuclear obligations, as talks between Tehran and world powers stumbled in Moscow.

They agreed in a joint statement that Tehran must "undertake serious efforts aimed at restoring international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program."

"To this end, Tehran must fully comply with its obligations... and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency for the expedited resolution of all remaining issues."

Obama insisted that there was still "time and space" for a diplomatic solution, but the atmospherics in Moscow will prompt grave concern among those that fear an eventual US military strike on Iran.

Monday's meeting came as analysts speculated that Obama would not enjoy the same easy accommodation with the confrontational Putin as he did when engineering a "reset" of US-Russia ties with his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.

The two men appeared cordial but formal when talking with reporters after two hours of talks.

There was little progress evident in ending a row over a US missile defense system in Europe which Moscow opposes, with the leaders pledging in a statement to work towards joint solutions despite "differences."

Putin thanked Obama for helping Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, and the US leader said he would push Congress to overturn Cold War-era restrictions on Russian trade.

While differences seemed clear between the two leaders, the fact they issued a long, detailed statement pledging to strengthen "close and cooperative" relations appeared to indicate neither side wanted rows to dominate.

Obama sees his repair of relations with Moscow as a key legacy building foreign policy achievement, which yielded a new START nuclear arms reduction treaty and cooperation on Iranian nuclear sanctions and Afghanistan.

But the two sides have sparred openly since Putin returned to the presidency last month, after accusing the United States of orchestrating demonstrations against him in Moscow last year.

by Stephen Collinson and Maria Antonova © 2012 AFP

Source: AFP
Date: Jun 19, 2012