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The Globe and Mail

At G8, Obama, Putin look for common ground on Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013.

Evan Vucci/AP

After days of tough talk and escalating tension over Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to try to set aside their differences and work together to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The two leaders met for about two hours at the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and emerged with tight smiles, firm handshakes and very different views on what to do in Syria. The meeting between the two had been widely anticipated in light of some harsh words over Syria leading up to the G8, particularly from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Sitting side by side after the meeting, Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin looked pensive at times and ill at ease, but they clearly wanted to project an image of co-operation and said they would push both sides in Syria to the negotiating table.

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"Of course our opinions do not coincide but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria, to stop the growth in victims and to solve the situation peacefully including by bringing the parties to the negotiating table in Geneva," Mr. Putin said through a translator, referring to efforts to restart stalled peace talks.

Mr. Obama echoed the sentiment, saying the U.S. and Russia will work on getting both sides in the Syrian civil war to the negotiating table in Switzerland, something that has fallen through before.

"We do have differing perspectives on the problem but we share an interest in reducing the violence, securing chemical weapons, ensuring that they are neither used nor are they subject to proliferation and that we want to try and resolve the issue through political means if possible," Mr. Obama said.

It is not clear just how far the apparent goodwill will go in ending the two-year civil war, which has killed more than 90,000 people. Mr. Putin and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad have rejected U.S. claims that the Syrian army has used chemical weapons.

The Syrian army has also gained the upper hand in the fighting, thanks to Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters, giving the Assad regime little incentive to negotiate peace in Geneva. And Russia made it clear on Monday that it would veto any attempt by the U.S. to organize a United Nations-backed no-fly zone.

Meanwhile, the U.S. allies remain divided over the decision by Mr. Obama to begin sending arms to the rebels. Despite several bilateral meetings at the G8 Monday, none of the other countries – France, Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan – agreed to join the U.S. in providing arms. Britain and France have backed U.S. claims about chemical weapons, but have to yet indicate if they will send weapons to the rebels. The British have said in the past that any arms shipments should be conditional on the rebels attending peace talks in Geneva, but several rebel leaders have been cool to that idea.

French President François Hollande gave some hints his government might provide weapons telling reporters at the G8: "How can we allow that Russia continues to deliver arms to the Bashar al-Assad regime when the opposition receives very few and is being massacred?"

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Canada has also refused to commit to providing arms, fearing they might end up in the hands of extremist elements within the rebel groups. Prime Minister Harper had been among the most outspoken G8 leaders on Syria, scolding Mr. Putin on Sunday for backing the "thugs" of the Syrian regime and suggesting the G8 was really "G7 plus one." On Monday, Canada also announced it was increasing its humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees by $90-million.

By the time Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama met on Monday, it seemed unlikely anything fruitful would come of the discussions. But both seemed keen to at least appear conciliatory. Aside from Syria, they talked about greater co-operation on finding a solution to the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. They plan to broaden their economic ties, boost trade between Russia and the U.S. and work on nuclear non-proliferation.

"I think this is an example of the kind of constructive co-operative relationship that moves us out of the Cold War mindset into the realm where by working together we not only increase security and prosperity for the Russian and American people but also help lead the world to a better place," Mr. Obama said.

Then he smiled and added: "And finally we compared notes on President Putin's expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball. I think we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover."

Mr. Putin chuckled and replied: "The President wants to relax me with his statements."

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