LOS CABOS, Mexico – Seeking common ground, President Barack Obama said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Monday on the need for a political process in Syria to prevent civil war in the violence-torn country and said any tensions between the United States and Russia can be worked out.
The two men were meeting for the first time since Putin returned to the presidency amid friction over Syria and a recognition that both need one another, an uncomfortable truth for Obama as he wages a tough re-election campaign and for the newly elected Russian leader who is deeply suspicious of the United States
Obama said that on Syria the two "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 events that we've seen over the last several weeks, and we pledged to work with other international actors, including the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and all interested parties in trying to find a resolution to this problem."
Putin, seated next to Obama following their two-hour meeting, said: "From my perspective we've been able to find many commonalities" on Syria.
Neither leader mentioned Syrian President Bashar Assad by name in their public remarks or in a joint statement issued after their meeting, thus avoiding any express reference to past U.S. demands that Assad step down.
The joint statement said: "We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.
Beyond Syria, Obama and Putin discussed diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation with Iran. Obama said he emphasized a common approach to Iran, asserting there was "still time and space to resolve diplomatically" concerns about nuclear weapons.
The U.S. has sought Russia's help to lend legitimacy to the argument that Iran faces broad international condemnation. Iran usually paints the dispute over its nuclear program as a confrontation with the U.S. and its ally Israel.
The Obama-Putin meeting was held as Moscow played host to an international negotiating session with Iran. Russia has gone along with U.N. Security Council efforts to tighten some penalties against Iran because of questions about its nuclear weapons ambitions, but has blocked the harshest punishments.
The meeting was one of two major foreign policy challenges preoccupying Obama during his two days at the Group of 20 economic meeting. Much of the rest of the summit was to be devoted to the European fiscal crisis and the fate of Greece as a part of the euro zone. A pro-euro candidate is trying to form a Greek coalition government following elections Sunday, but the anti-austerity second-place party has refused.
The G-20 gathering is a natural forum for sideline discussions of the urgent crisis in Syria as well as diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation with Iran. Russia is a linchpin in world efforts to resolve both crises, and to U.S. goals for the smooth shutdown of the war in Afghanistan. In the longer term, Obama wants Russia's continued cooperation in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Obama made a special project of Russia in his first term and arguably needs Moscow's help even more if he wins a second one. He is trying to avoid a distracting public spat with Russia during this election year, as suggested by an overheard remark to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March. Obama told Medvedev he would have more flexibility to answer Russian complaints about a U.S.-built missile defense shield in Europe after the November election.
Things got off to a rocky start with Putin, when Obama pointedly withheld a customary congratulatory phone call to Putin until days after his May election. Putin appeared to snub Obama by skipping the smaller and weightier Group of Eight meeting that Obama hosted later that month at Camp David.
The rescheduled Obama-Putin meeting came the same day Moscow hosts an international negotiating session with Iran. Russia has gone along with U.N. Security Council efforts to tighten some penalties against Iran because of questions about its nuclear weapons ambitions, but has blocked the harshest punishments. Still, the United States needs Russia's participation to lend legitimacy to the argument that Iran faces broad international condemnation. Iran usually paints the dispute over its nuclear program as a confrontation with the U.S. and its ally Israel.
Brutal attacks on anti-government protesters in Syria and the threat of civil war in the Mideast nation pose the most immediate crisis.
Diplomatic hopes have rested on Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that would end the four-decade Assad family rule. Russia, as Syria's longtime ally and trading partner, is seen as the best broker for a deal that could give Assad political refuge. So far, Moscow has said no.
Pressure increased on Russia over the weekend, when the United Nations suspended its unarmed monitoring mission in Syria out of concern for the monitors' safety. The move was widely interpreted as a challenge to Russia to intervene with Assad to preserve a U.N. role Moscow sees as a brake on any armed foreign intervention.
The Interfax news agency reported Monday that two Russian navy ships were preparing to sail to Syria with a unit of marines on a mission to protect Russian citizens and a Russian naval base there. The report didn't give a give a precise date for the departure of the two amphibious landing vessels.
The United States has refused to arm anti-Assad rebels in part to avoid a proxy fight in which Iran, Russia and others arm one side and the U.S. and Sunni Arab states arm the other. Opposition groups estimate 14,000 people have died in violence that the U.S. fears is sliding into civil war.