Obama set to press Putin on Syria at G20

Financial Times

After a week when it sometimes felt as if the cold war had never ended, Barack Obama will finally get some quiet time on Monday with Vladimir Putin to press the new Russian president on the crisis in Syria.
With senior diplomats from both countries trading unusually aggressive barbs in recent days, Mr Obama plans to use a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico to privately test whether the US and Russia can find common ground on Syria, according to senior US officials.

The first encounter between the two presidents since Mr Putin’s return to presidential office will be a critical showdown in the diplomacy of the Syrian crisis. But it also will provide an indication of where US-Russia relations are headed under a leader who has a notoriously sceptical view of US power – and who declined to attend last month’s G8 summit at Camp David, a move many interpreted as a snub.

Mr Obama faces the delicate task of trying to forge a good working relationship with Mr Putin while Congress is moving close to passing the Magnitsky bill, which criticises Russia’s human rights record.
Complicating matters even more, Mr Obama is in the midst of an election campaign in which his Republican opponent is looking to pounce on any signs of concessions.

“The Magnitsky case … supports my point that we are in for much more difficult times in the relationship with the US,” says Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

In the build-up to the meeting, the US state department has sought to increase the pressure on Moscow. The claim by Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, that Russia was supplying attack helicopters that could “dramatically” escalate the conflict prompted an angry denial by Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister. Mrs Clinton responded to Mr Lavrov by saying that Russia was damaging its interests in the entire region.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, Obama administration officials say the US and Russian positions on Syria are not as far apart as they might seem. “We both agree on the need to avoid a sectarian war that spills over Syria’s borders and affects the entire region,” said a senior administration official. “But there are obviously tactical differences about how to achieve that.”

With US and European officials indicating in recent weeks that Russia might be looking for alternative leaders within the Syrian regime, Mr Obama will want to test the strength of Mr Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad.

While the Kremlin has made clear it is not wedded to Mr Assad, it says regime change should not be a precondition for opening a political dialogue in Syria. Instead, any change in leadership should come at the end of a peace process, as the result of an election or a referendum.

Irina Zviagelskaya, a Middle East analyst at Moscow’s Oriental Institute, said the real extent of Russia’s leverage over Mr Assad remained unclear.

“I believe that Russia has quite a lot of influence with Assad but that doesn’t mean that it can force him out,” she said.

When Mr Obama meets Mr Putin at the seaside resort of Los Cabos, he will need to keep one eye on his political opponents who have accused him of being too cosy with Moscow.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said this week that Mr Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Moscow had “clearly failed”.

Russian help has been indispensable for getting military supplies into Afghanistan, especially since Pakistan closed the route through its territory in November. Such assistance could be one reason why the Pentagon has not backed up Mrs Clinton’s claims about Russian helicopters in Syria.

Congress is likely to pass the Magnitsky bill, which seeks to block the bank accounts and ban the visas of certain human rights violators in the Russian government. The bill’s bipartisan supporters are making it a precondition for normalising trade relations with Russia, which is the administration’s top trade priority this year.

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