Wed | Jan 17, 2018

'Gaps of trust' challenges Obama, Putin Syria deal

Published:Tuesday | September 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with US President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province yesterday.


President Barack Obama said yesterday the United States and Russia have not given up on negotiations that could stem the bloodshed in Syria, but acknowledged leaders are challenged by "gaps of trust" between the rival powers.

Significant sticking points remain in the negotiations over a creation of an unlikely US-Russian military partnership focusing firepower on "common enemies" in Syria, Obama said. He acknowledged that a flurry of diplomacy at an economic summit and a 90-minute meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, earlier Monday did not yield a breakthrough.

"Given the gaps of trust that exist, that's a tough negotiation," Obama told a press conference closing the Group of 20 summit. "We haven't yet closed the gaps."

Obama didn't detail the trouble spots, although he suggested the US has concerns about Russia holding up its end of the bargain and enforcing the terms. Any deal would depend on Moscow using its influence with Syrian President Bashar Assad to persuade the Syrian leader to ground planes and stop the assault on opposition forces. Obama said the aim was to reach "meaningful, serious, verifiable cessations of hostilities in Syria".

The deal depends on the two sides agreeing to closer militarily coordination against extremist groups operating in Syria, something the Russians have long sought and the US resisted.

Obama and Putin also discussed the conflict in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the government, and the implementation of the agreement to stop the violence. Obama met earlier with French President FranÁois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the same issue.

The difficult diplomacy on Syria set the tone for an uneven few days for Obama on his last tour through Asia as president.

Obama's visit started on a high note, with the US and China consummating their unlikely partnership on climate change by announcing they were both entering the global emissions-cutting deal reached last year in Paris.




But the focus on climate quickly gave way to the failed Syria talks.

A sit-down between Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also laid bare the two NATO allies' diverging interests in Syria, with Erdogan pointedly challenging Obama on US support for Kurds fighting the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurds are the most effective US-backed anti-IS force, but the Turks consider them to be terrorists.

Obama's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping also veered into delicate territory, with a lengthy White House description detailing how Obama had pressed Xi to abide by an international tribunal's ruling against China over the South China Sea.

The tensions continued throughout the trip as Chinese officials severely restricted the media's ability to attend Obama's G20 events.

Obama's next stop is Laos, where he'll promote his effort to deepen ties to Southeast Asia.