At G-20, Obama, Putin Discuss Fighting In Syria

President Barack Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Mexico on Monday. Their meeting comes at a low point in U.S.-Russia relations. Neither country wants a civil war in Syria, but they haven't figured out a way to work out the issue.

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President Obama disagrees with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, over what to do about Syria. The U.S. thinks it's time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go; the Russians aren't so sure. The American and Russian leaders met yesterday during a summit of global leaders, and they at least agreed that they prefer a political solution to Syria's problems. They hope to avoid a civil war; they just don't agree how to do it. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Obama administration posted fact sheet after fact sheet; to show how the U.S. and Russia are cooperating on energy, the economy and Afghanistan. President Obama described his meeting with Putin as candid, thoughtful and thorough; but only spoke in general terms about Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence; that a political process has to be created, to prevent civil war and the kind of horrific deaths that we've seen over the last several weeks.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has blamed Russia for fueling the conflict, by shipping in weapons and shielding Bashar al-Assad's regime diplomatically at the United Nations. The dispute marked a new low in U.S.-Russian relations. Part of the problem, says one Kremlin adviser, is that the relationship itself is not enough of a priority to withstand such tensions. Konstantin Kosachev says Putin simply wants Russia's concerns to be taken into account.

KONSTANTIN KOSACHEV: Russia should be treated as an equal partner; and not be just placed in a line to learn the news about how the United States of America, or NATO, would behave in this or that situation.

KELEMEN: Kosachev told the Center for the National Interest - here, in Washington - that the U.S. exaggerates Russia's ties to the Syrian government. He says Russia is only concerned about maintaining international law. But Sen. John McCain doesn't seem to be buying that.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The Russians are very intelligent. Vladimir Putin is a very smart man. But they are doing enormous damage to their image in the Arab world. They are harming themselves dramatically, and I don't quite understand that.

KELEMEN: There is word that Russia is sending ships to Syria, possibly to prepare to evacuate Russian citizens. It has also kept up its arms shipments, including Soviet-made helicopters that had gone back to Russia for repair. McCain told the American Enterprise Institute that this is not a fair fight.

MCCAIN: Whether these are new helicopters - or old ones - that Assad sent to Russia to be refurbished and had the blood washed off of them, is a distinction without a difference.

ANDRANIK MIGRANYAN: Moscow just ignores this kind of history because Moscow is well aware that Moscow's position on this issue is well-founded.

KELEMEN: That's Andranik Migranyan, who runs the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, which has ties to the Kremlin. He says no one should expect Russia's position to change because, he says, Moscow shares the concerns of Christians and other minorities in Syria, who are worried about what would happen if Assad is forced to go.

MIGRANYAN: This - going to be not the end of the regime of Bashar al-Assad; it's going to be the end of the country. The country could be collapsed, and the mess will be much bigger. Today's 10,000 will be just a joke, comparing what's going to happen later on.

KELEMEN: While Migranyan says that Russia can't - and doesn't want to - press Assad to step down, he also points out that Moscow wants to be a power broker and could offer Assad refuge, if it come to that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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