LOS CABOS, Mexico (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Monday that the violence in Syria has to end but they offered no new solutions and showed no signs of reaching a deal on tougher sanctions against Damascus.
With the bloodshed in Syria getting worse and after a week of Cold War-style recriminations between U.S. and Russian diplomats, the talks at a Group of 20 summit in Mexico tested whether Obama and Putin could forge a working relationship and find common ground.
“We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war,” Obama told reporters after the talks that went on for some two hours - longer than originally planned.
“From my point of view, we have found many common points on this issue (of Syria),” Putin said, adding the two sides would continue discussions.
The demeanor of both leaders was cool and detached as they avoided any explicit comment on the differences that divide them, or solutions to end the chaos in Syria.
It was a personal dynamic that contrasted sharply with the chumminess that Putin and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush - dubbed “The George and Vladimir Show” by the media - used to show in their meetings.
With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continuing his bloody, 15-month crackdown on the opposition, Obama and Western allies want Moscow to stop using its veto to shield him from further U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at forcing him from power.
Putin, a former KGB spymaster, is suspicious of U.S. motives, especially after the NATO-assisted ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year, and he has offered little sign of softening his stance on Syria.
Though Washington has shown no appetite for a new Libya-style intervention, Russia is reluctant to abandon its Syrian ally, a longtime arms customer, and risk losing its last firm foothold in the Middle East, including access to a warm-water navy base.
Suspension of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria over the weekend put added pressure on Obama and Putin, meeting for the first time since the Russian president’s re-election, to act decisively to keep the conflict from spiraling into civil war.
The two men, at least in their public remarks, brushed past broad differences over issues such as arming Syria, U.N. sanctions and Assad’s future.
As journalists entered the cramped hotel ballroom, the two leaders were leaning toward each other in discussion, neither smiling. Obama initiated a handshake for the cameras while the two remained seated.
Obama sometimes gestured toward Putin as he spoke but Putin sat more stiffly through the joint appearance. At the end of their statements, as reporters were being ushered out, both sat glumly watching but made no move to re-engage with each other.
The hardened tone appears to mark the endpoint of Obama’s “reset” of ties with Russia, pursued with Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, and touted by the White House as a signature foreign policy accomplishment.
The seriousness of the rift between Washington and Moscow was underscored last week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of supplying Assad with attack helicopters. This drew an angry retort from the Kremlin.
“Some people are trying to spoil the atmosphere of these talks,” said Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s adviser on foreign policy.
The meeting touched on other issues besides Syria, including missile defense, arms reduction, and trade.
On Iran, Obama said the two leaders agreed on the need for a diplomatic solution to the country’s nuclear standoff with the West.
“We agreed that there’s still time and space to resolve diplomatically the issue of Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons, as well as its interest in developing peaceful nuclear power,” Obama said.
Despite the presidents’ stiff interaction during their encounter, Obama ended the appearance on a courteous note.
“Mr. President, I look forward to visiting Russia again, and I look forward to hosting you in the United States,” he said.
Putin did not attend a G8 summit hosted by Obama at his presidential retreat at Camp David last month. The meeting between the two men was rescheduled to neutral ground in Mexico.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason; Editing by Kieran Murray and Will Dunham