Barack Obama and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin completed a bilateral meeting on the margins of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, on Monday with an agreement that there should be a cessation of hostilities in Syria, but silent on whether Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad must stand aside.
In a joint statement, the two leaders said: “In order to to stop the the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of the violence and express full support for the efforts of the UN and Arab states joint special envoy Kofi Annan, including on moving forward on political transition to a democratic pluralist political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syrian sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.
“We are united in our belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.”
Neither leader mentioned Assad by name in their public remarks or in a joint statement issued after their meeting, thus avoiding any express reference to past US demands that Assad step down. There was also no mention of sanctions or a tougher arms embargo.
Obama said that he and Putin had “candid, thoughtful and through conversation” about various issues including Syria and Iran.
Beyond Syria, Obama and Putin discussed diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation with Iran. Obama said he emphasised a common approach to Iran, asserting there was “still time and space to resolve diplomatically” concerns about nuclear weapons.
Putin, a former KGB spymaster, is suspicious of US motives, especially after the Nato-assisted ousting of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year, and he has offered little sign of softening his stance on Syria.
Though Washington has shown no appetite for a Libya-style intervention, Russia is reluctant to abandon its Syrian ally, a longtime arms customer, and risk losing its last firm foothold in the Middle East, including access to a warm-water naval base.
As journalists entered the cramped hotel ballroom, the two leaders were leaning toward each other in discussion, neither smiling. Obama initiated a handshake for the cameras while the two remained seated.
Obama sometimes gestured toward Putin as he spoke but Putin sat more stiffly through the joint appearance. At the end of their statements, as reporters were being ushered out, both sat glumly watching and made no move to re-engage with each other.
Suspension of the UN monitoring mission in Syria over the weekend put added pressure on Obama and Putin, meeting for the first time since the Russian president’s re-election, to act decisively to keep the conflict from spiralling into civil war.
In a statement that glossed over the intense differences between Russia and the US, British sources were arguing that the commitment to end violence could at least be construed as an advance on the Russian position at the UN Security Council only a month ago. At the time Russia was opposed even to a condemnation of the violence.