In a meeting described by reporters as tense and uncomfortable, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin came together at the G-8 summit in Ireland and tried to find common ground on Syria, although they are backing opposite sides in the conflict.
The Los Angeles Times characterized the encounter as “icy,” as reporters noted the two powerful leaders barely looked at each other, staring ahead as the other spoke while they sat side-by-side in armchairs. Putin sometimes looked at the floor when Obama spoke. It was a replay of their discomfort with each other a year ago at the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
The meeting came just after the White House said it would be deepening U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. The CIA is soon to begin supplying arms and ammunition to some opposition forces in hopes of shifting the military balance away from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that has killed 93,000 people.
Russia has been Assad’s most powerful ally, sending weapons to Assad’s forces and reportedly considering deliveries of sophisticated antiaircraft missile batteries.
Both Obama and Putin expressed support for still-unscheduled Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva.
Obama noted that he and Putin had “differing perspectives” on Syria, but said they both sought to reduce the bloodshed and secure Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
“We want to try to resolve the issue through political means if possible,” Obama said.
“Of course our opinions don’t coincide,” Putin responded, adding that he hoped “to solve the situation peacefully” and said they “agreed to push the parties to the negotiations table.”
Obama tried to reduce the tension by making a joking reference to their favorite sports—he mentioned Putin’s expertise in judo and “my declining skills in basketball.”
“We both agree that as you get older, it takes more time to recover,” he said.
Putin smiled briefly and added, “The president wants to relax me with his statement.”
Putin is not pleased by the decision by the U.S. and other Western nations to aid the rebels. After meeting in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin called the anti-Assad forces lawless thugs and cannibals.
“I believe one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public gaze and cameras,” Putin said, referring to a video posted online that appears to show a rebel fighter cutting open the body of a loyalist soldier and eating his heart. “Are these the people you want to support?”
White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called the two-hour meeting between Obama and Putin “businesslike.”
Rhodes said they spent about one-fifth of the meeting time on Syria, and he tried to focus on areas of accord, such as their agreement on a new version of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a post-Cold War nonproliferation program that secured or dismantled nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in former Soviet states.
Rhodes acknowledged that the Russians were “more skeptical” of the evidence that led the White House to declare last week that Assad’s forces had used small amounts of sarin nerve gas in attacks that killed 100 to 150 people.