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Obama heads to prickly Putin talks

17 June 2013, 06:52Stephen Collinson

Washington - President Barack Obama meets Russia's Vladimir Putin on Monday for potentially vexatious talks, as both leaders now offer open military backing to rival sides in Syria's civil war.

Obama, who leaves Washington on Sunday, will confront Putin at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, after his administration signalled it would begin arming vetted rebels battling Syria's government, Russia's top Arab ally.

That decision last week complicated the already delicate politics of the Obama-Putin meeting and prompted Russia to acidly decry US claims that Syria crossed a 'red line' by using chemical weapons as unconvincing.

Washington, trying to preserve the troubled notion of a Geneva peace summit co-organized with Moscow, wants a change of strategy from Putin, who has backed President Bashar Assad even as Obama has repeatedly demanded he leave power.

But no one expects the Russian leader to yield, especially in the wake of battlefield gains against the rebels by Assad's forces bolstered by Hezbollah militia fighters and Iran.

Putin may also be taking some Machiavellian comfort from the public agonising consuming Western governments over what to do about Syria, which has been particularly acute inside the Obama administration.

"We still continue to discuss with the Russians whether there is a way to bring together elements of the regime and the opposition to achieve a political settlement," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor.

"There are no illusions that that's going to be easy."

Different opinions

US officials will try to convince Putin that a descent into deeper chaos and instability in Syria is not in Moscow's national interests.

Top US officials, keen to avoid in Syria the messy splintering of state institutions that led to chaos in Iraq, are stressing the idea that if Assad leaves, elements of the regime, presumably sympathetic to Russia, might stay.

But the argument's potency has weakened given indications that Assad's position is more stable than it has been for months.

"I don't think Obama is going to shift Putin in his way of thinking. The French and the British certainly won't be able to do this," said Michael Geary, a European Studies fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

Putin seems in no mood to compromise, and on Sunday hit out at the decision to arm Syrian opposition factions.

"It is barely worth it [supplying arms] to support people who not only kill their enemies but open up their bodies and eat their internal organs in front of the public and the cameras," Putin said in London.

Western powers may hope that by arming selected rebels they can shift the dynamics of the fighting on the ground, which could chip away at Assad's position and raise pressure on Putin to reengage.

"We would very much like to see the Russians taking a similar view about the importance of an inclusive political process to create a transition that Syria needs," a Western diplomat said.

"We would like to see Russia engaging on what that means, less directly attached to the continuation in power of Bashar Assad."

Obama may press Putin on whether Russia plans to complete the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Damascus regime, which could complicate any future US or Western air operations over the country.

Relationship already shaky

Disagreements over Syria have frayed an already testy relationship between Russia and the United States, which has deteriorated since the "reset" engineered by Obama and former president Dmitry Medvedev.

Yet US officials believe progress may be possible in some areas, especially ahead of a planned meeting between the leaders when Obama heads to St Petersburg for the G20 summit in September.

Obama will likely probe whether Putin is ready to talk about weapons cuts as he seeks to cement his nuclear arms reduction legacy after agreeing on a new START treaty with Moscow in his first term.

Both sides also have a renewed interest in co-operation on counter-terrorism issues, following the bombing of the Boston marathon by attackers with origins in the Caucasus region of Russia.

Obama and Putin are not expected to take questions after their talks, but will make statements to the press at the G8 venue in Loch Erne.

Journalists and analysts will be reduced to sifting visual clues.

"I think if we see scowling and stiff body language, you will interpret that one way," said Heather Conley of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"If we see smiles and backslaps, you will interpret it in another way."



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