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Obama, Putin in stare-down over (no, not the Super Bowl ring) Syria war (+video)

Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin, meeting at the G8 summit, both said they want a negotiated end to the Syria conflict. But that barely masked deep divisions over how best to pressure Syrian President Assad to talk rather than fight.

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The two did try to paper over their differences, saying that both sides want to see a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Putin said he and Obama “agreed to push the partiers to the negotiating table,” while Obama said the US and Russia agree on the need “to try to resolve the issue through political means, if possible.”

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A US-Russia plan for Syria peace talks in Geneva has stalled, with a conference originally set for May now envisioned for July at best.

But there were no signs that Obama was able to convince Putin that his decision, announced last week, to begin supplying US arms to Syria’s rebels will enhance the likelihood of bringing the warring factions to peace talks.

Obama took his case to Putin even as new polls in the US show that a majority of Americans don’t approve of the president’s about-face on getting the US more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. A new Gallup poll finds that 54 percent disapprove of direct US military aid to the rebels, while 37 percent approve.

But a Pew poll suggests that a much higher percentage of Americans disapprove of the plan, announced by the White House last week. More than two-thirds of Americans – 70 percent – oppose the US and its allies supplying military assistance to the rebels, while just 20 percent approve of such a move, according to the Pew Research Center.

Moreover, the Pew survey finds that 6 in 10 Americans are skeptical that Syria’s opposition, if brought to power, would be any better than the current Assad government.

Appearing before the international press after two hours of talks, the American and Russian chiefs hardly looked like two leaders who had just enjoyed their time together.

Obama appeared to try to put more emphasis on their common ground, noting that both the US and Russia have an interest in “securing chemical weapons and ensuring that they are neither used nor are ... subject to proliferation.”

Obama also took time in otherwise terse statements to announce a “concrete outcome” of the two leaders’ meeting: agreement on extension of US-Russia cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation known as the Nunn-Lugar program.

Other leaders attending the two-day summit were less diplomatic. Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, said early that “Mr. Putin and his government” were supporting “the thugs of the Assad regime for their own reasons that I do not think are justifiable.”

As a result, he said, the G8 could have no common position on Syria. “I don’t think we should fool ourselves,” he said. “This is G7 plus one.”   

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