REUTERS - U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Monday on the need to end violence in Syria but they showed no concrete signs of narrowing their differences on tougher sanctions against Damascus.
After a week of Cold War-style recriminations between U.S. and Russian diplomats, the talks at a Group of 20 summit in Mexico tested whether the two leaders could forge a working relationship and find common ground on Syria and other festering disputes.
Putin frowned and Obama wore a sober expression during their remarks to reporters after the meeting.
“We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war,” Obama told reporters, who entered the room after the talks went on for some two hours - longer than originally planned.
“From my point of view, we have found many common points on this issue (of Syria),” Putin said, adding the two sides would continue discussions.
With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continuing his bloody, 15-month crackdown on the opposition, Obama and Western allies want veto-wielding Moscow to stop shielding him from further U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at forcing him from power.
Putin, a former KGB spymaster, is suspicious of U.S. motives especially after the NATO-assisted ouster 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 new 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 navy base.
Suspension of the U.N. 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 spiraling into civil war.
The two men, at least in their public remarks, brushed past broad differences over issues such as arming Syria, U.N. sanctions and Assad’s future.
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 but made no move to re-engage with each other.
The hardened tone appears to mark the endpoint of Obama’s “reset” of ties with Moscow, pursued with Putin predecessor Dmitry Medvedev and touted by the White House as a signature foreign policy accomplishment.