Obama and Putin fail to reach agreement on Syria

The US and Russian leaders held a 90-minute meeting at the G20 summit in China in an attempt to finalise deal on ceasefires and common strategy against extremist militants.
Russian president Vladimir Putin talks to US president Barack Obama during a meeting at the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, on September 5, 2016. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / EPA
Russian president Vladimir Putin talks to US president Barack Obama during a meeting at the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, on September 5, 2016. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / EPA

HANGZHOU, China // The US and Russia are challenged by “gaps of trust” but have not given up on negotiations to stem the bloodshed in Syria, Barack Obama said on Monday.

Significant sticking points remain in over a creation of an unlikely US-Russian military partnership focusing firepower on “common enemies” in Syria, the US president said.

He acknowledged that a flurry of diplomacy at an economic summit and a 90-minute meeting with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, earlier on Monday did not yield a breakthrough.

“Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation,” Mr Obama said at the end of the Group of 20 summit. “We haven’t yet closed the gaps.”

Mr Obama did not detail the trouble spots, although he suggested the US has concerns about Russia holding up its end of the bargain and enforcing the terms.

Any deal would depend on Moscow using its influence with Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to persuade him to ground planes and stop the assault on opposition forces.

Mr Obama said the aim was to reach “meaningful, serious, verifiable cessations of hostilities in Syria”.

Mr Putin said there had been some “alignment”, insisting the two sides could reach a deal soon.

“Despite everything, we have some alignment of positions and an understanding of what we could do to de-escalate the situation in Syria,” he said.

“I believe that we are on the right track and could, at least for some period of time, agree to carry out mutual energetic attempts to make the situation in Syria more healthy,” he said.

“Our mutual work with the US in fighting terrorist organisations, including in Syria, will be significantly improved and intensified.”

The US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov have for weeks been trying to broker a deal to curb the violence between the Assad’s government forces, which are allied with Russia, and moderate rebels backed by the US.

The deal depends on the two sides agreeing to closer militarily coordination against extremist groups operating in Syria, something the Russians have long sought and the US resisted.

Mr Obama has expressed scepticism that Russia would hold to its agreement. The state department wants a nationwide ceasefire between Mr Al Assad’s military and the rebels, rather than another time-limited agreement like ones that failed before.

Mr Obama’s meeting with Mr Putin came as the Russian leader is playing a prominent role in the US presidential campaign. American officials blame Russian intelligence for a hack on the Democratic National Committee that resulted in a leak of emails damaging to its presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Mr Putin has denied his government was involved, but cheered the release of the information.

The US president said he expressed concerns about cybersecurity issues with Mr Putin.

Mr Obama and Mr Putin also discussed the conflict in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the government, and the implementation of the agreement to stop the violence.

The difficult diplomacy on Syria set the tone for an uneven few days for Mr Obama on his last tour through Asia as president.

His visit started on a high note, with the US and China consummating their unlikely partnership on climate change by announcing they were both entering the global emissions-cutting deal reached last year in Paris.

But the focus on climate quickly gave way to the failed Syria talks.

A sit-down between Mr Obama and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan also laid bare the two Nato allies’ diverging interests in Syria, with Mr Erdogan pointedly challenging Mr Obama on US support for Kurds fighting ISIL. The Kurds are the most effective US-backed anti-ISIL force, but the Turks consider them to be terrorists.

Mr Obama’s meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping also veered into delicate territory, with Mr Obama pressing Mr Xi to abide by an international tribunal’s ruling against China over the South China Sea.

To the frustration of the White House, these weighty matters seemed to be overshadowed by a made-for-social-media moment from Mr Obama’s arrival at the airport.

As the president was greeted by his Chinese hosts, Mr Obama’s aides and journalists accompanying the president clashed with a Chinese official as they tried to watch the ceremony.

* Associated Press

Published: September 5, 2016 04:00 AM

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