President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Monday on the need for a political transition in Syria as they sought to work through "tensions" in their relationship.
Meeting for nearly two hours on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Mexico, the two presidents tried to focus mostly on areas of agreement -- even when it came to areas of disagreement, such as Syria.
The U.S. wants Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power. Russia, which sells arms to Syria, has blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for tough sanctions and leaving the door open to military intervention.
"We 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 deaths that we've seen over the last several weeks," Obama said after his first meeting with Putin following his return to the Russian presidency this year. "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 was upbeat after the meeting, which lasted much longer than planned and covered a range of issues between the two nations.
"From my perspective, we've been able to find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues," he said.
Despite the rhetoric, there were few smiles when the leaders finished their meeting. In a joint statement they said:
"To stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence and express full support for the efforts of U.N./League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, including moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity."
Meanwhile, two Russian navy ships with marines on board reportedly were preparing to sail to Syria to protect a Russian military base there, as well as Russian citizens.
The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Russian navy official as saying the two amphibious landing vessels would head shortly to the Syrian port of Tartus.
Each ship is capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks, Russian media reports said. That would make it the largest-known Russian troop deployment to Syria.
Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. would be concerned if the Russian naval ships were taking weapons or sending people to support the Assad regime.
"The secretary of Defense remains concerned about any efforts by external countries or external organizations to supply lethal arms to the Syrian regime so that they can turn around and use those to kill their own people," Kirby said.
Russia has cooperated with international efforts to sanction Iran over its nuclear program and has provided access into Afghanistan for the NATO-led war effort, but differences remain on other issues, including the placement of U.S. anti-missile shields in Europe.
"Despite differences we have agreed to continue a joint search for solutions to challenges in the field of missile defense," the statement said.
The two nations announced a "reset" in their relations in 2009, but the effort has been rocky. Monday's meeting provided an opportunity for the two leaders to put a happy face on their relationship.
Contributing: Associated Press
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