A critical meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin stretched two hours Monday, longer than had been scheduled, as the two leaders discussed issues such as trade, counterterrorism, nuclear weapons and Syria.
But despite ostensibly supporting different sides in the Syria conflict, the two men sought to build on shared interests – preventing extremists from establishing themselves in Syria – in a show of unity that belies a growing partnership.
"We've clearly had differences over Syria in the past and continue to have differences as it relates to principally the fact that the United States believes that any transition in Syria has to involve Bashar al-Assad leaving power," said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, during a briefing. "However, [the Russians] believe and recommitted themselves to working for a negotiated, political settlement to end the violence in Syria."
The Russians have vetoed United Nations resolutions threatening sanctions against Syria and continue to provide arms to the Assad regime, while the United States just announced it would be providing light weapons to the rebel forces and is sending $800 million in humanitarian aid to the region. U.S. officials hope that Obama's discussions with Putin could lead to greater agreement and coordination going forward.
"Of course our opinions do not coincide," Putin said through an interpreter during a joint press conference with Obama. "But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria."
Rhodes said that Obama and Putin sought to build on that shared interest of regional stability during their meeting at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
"We both agree that it's worth getting the parties to the table to have that discussion and to have that negotiation about how a transition moves forward," he said. "What you've heard President Putin say a number of times is, to them, this is not all about Bashar al-Assad. To them, it's about their interests in Syria and their interests in Syria fundamentally have to do with stability."
An estimated 92,000 deaths have occurred so far in the two-year conflict, but Americans are still widely opposed to ramping up involvement in the Middle East as the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Obama acknowledged his personal resistance to further involving the U.S. in the region as well, in an interview with PBS' Charlie Rose.
"We have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East," he said, defending himself against the critique he could have done more sooner to prevent casualties.