Obama heads to prickly Putin talks
17 June 2013, 07:43
Washington - President Barack Obama meets Russia's Vladimir Putin
on Monday for potentially vexatious talks, as both leaders now offer
open military backing to rival sides in Syria's civil war.
Obama, who leaves Washington on Sunday, will confront
Putin at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, after his administration
signalled it would begin arming vetted rebels battling Syria's
government, Russia's top Arab ally.
That decision last week complicated the already
delicate politics of the Obama-Putin meeting and prompted Russia to
acidly decry US claims that Syria crossed a 'red line' by using chemical
weapons as unconvincing.
Washington, trying to preserve the troubled notion of a
Geneva peace summit co-organized with Moscow, wants a change of
strategy from Putin, who has backed President Bashar Assad even as
Obama has repeatedly demanded he leave power.
But no one expects the Russian leader to yield,
especially in the wake of battlefield gains against the rebels by
Assad's forces bolstered by Hezbollah militia fighters and Iran.
Putin may also be taking some Machiavellian comfort
from the public agonising consuming Western governments over what to do
about Syria, which has been particularly acute inside the Obama
"We still continue to discuss with the Russians whether
there is a way to bring together elements of the regime and the
opposition to achieve a political settlement," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy
US national security advisor.
"There are no illusions that that's going to be easy."
US officials will try to convince Putin that a descent
into deeper chaos and instability in Syria is not in Moscow's national
Top US officials, keen to avoid in Syria the messy
splintering of state institutions that led to chaos in Iraq, are
stressing the idea that if Assad leaves, elements of the regime,
presumably sympathetic to Russia, might stay.
But the argument's potency has weakened given indications that Assad's position is more stable than it has been for months.
"I don't think Obama is going to shift Putin in his way
of thinking. The French and the British certainly won't be able to do
this," said Michael Geary, a European Studies fellow at the Wilson
Centre in Washington.
Putin seems in no mood to compromise, and on Sunday hit out at the decision to arm Syrian opposition factions.
"It is barely worth it [supplying arms] to support
people who not only kill their enemies but open up their bodies and eat
their internal organs in front of the public and the cameras," Putin
said in London.
Western powers may hope that by arming selected rebels
they can shift the dynamics of the fighting on the ground, which could
chip away at Assad's position and raise pressure on Putin to reengage.
"We would very much like to see the Russians taking a
similar view about the importance of an inclusive political process to
create a transition that Syria needs," a Western diplomat said.
"We would like to see Russia engaging on what that
means, less directly attached to the continuation in power of Bashar Assad."
Obama may press Putin on whether Russia plans to
complete the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Damascus
regime, which could complicate any future US or Western air operations
over the country.
Relationship already shaky
Disagreements over Syria have frayed an already testy
relationship between Russia and the United States, which has
deteriorated since the "reset" engineered by Obama and former president
Yet US officials believe progress may be possible in
some areas, especially ahead of a planned meeting between the leaders
when Obama heads to St Petersburg for the G20 summit in September.
Obama will likely probe whether Putin is ready to talk
about weapons cuts as he seeks to cement his nuclear arms reduction
legacy after agreeing on a new START treaty with Moscow in his first
Both sides also have a renewed interest in co-operation
on counter-terrorism issues, following the bombing of the Boston
marathon by attackers with origins in the Caucasus region of Russia.
Obama and Putin are not expected to take questions
after their talks, but will make statements to the press at the G8 venue
in Loch Erne.
Journalists and analysts will be reduced to sifting visual clues.
"I think if we see scowling and stiff body language,
you will interpret that one way," said Heather Conley of the Centre for
Strategic and International Studies.
"If we see smiles and backslaps, you will interpret it in another way."
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