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

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.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their meeting.

So, did The Ring come up in the conversation?

Syria may have topped the agenda of Monday’s meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin – the first between the two leaders in a year. Mr. Obama appears to have had no more success at convincing Mr. Putin to abandon his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than Putin did in winning over Obama to his view that, in Syria, the West is wrong to demand that a legitimate government step down. 

While the two presidents made it clear that their differences over a future path for Syria remain unresolved, the topic of Putin’s Super Bowl ring – and whether or not the jewel, which now sits in a display case in the Kremlin library, was purloined – received no public air time.

Airwaves buzzed over the weekend with reports that Putin might have come by the ring by swiping it from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The odd tale appears to have started when Mr. Kraft, speaking last week at a charity gala in New York, said Putin pocketed the solid-gold bauble when Kraft showed it to him during a 2005 visit to St. Petersburg.

At the time, Kraft said he gave the ring to Putin. Now he seems to want it back.

It’s unclear if Obama acted as any kind of go-between in the Kraft-Putin dispute. Perhaps there was no time for such light-hearted fare as the two leaders took up their differing views on the Syrian civil war – a conflict that threatens to engulf the region as it rages on.

After their Monday afternoon tête-à-tête in Northern Ireland, where the two men gathered with other leaders for the annual G8 summit of industrialized countries, Obama said the US and Russia continue to have “differing perspectives on the problem” of Syria’s 26-month-old civil war.

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.”

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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