U.S., Russia in ‘Tough’ Negotiations Over Syria Cease-Fire, Obama Says

  • Obama speaks in China following U.S.-Russia talks on Syria
  • U.S.-Russia failed to reach cease-fire deal, continuing talks

Obama: Haven't Yet Closed the Gaps on Syria Negotiations

The U.S. and Russia aren’t closer to reaching agreement on a cease-fire in Syria but will continue talks over the next few days, U.S. President Barack Obama said.

Obama spoke at the end of the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, where he met with leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and discussed issues including the worsening situation in Syria. The U.S. and Russia earlier Monday said that despite weeks of talks and getting tantalizingly close, they hadn’t reached a deal.

Barack Obama in Hangzhou on Sept. 5.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation,” Obama said late Monday at a briefing before departing China for Laos. “We haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way we think would actually work.”

Obama spoke after Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Hangzhou and failed to reach an agreement about the countries working together in Syria toward a political transition to a new government.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

Obama on Sunday had tamped down expectations for a deal, saying negotiations with the Russians on a new cease-fire still had “grave differences” with what the U.S. wanted. But the State Department was so optimistic that on Sunday it set up a room for a joint announcement with podiums for Kerry and Lavrov to speak. Lavrov’s podium was hastily removed so Kerry could speak alone.

Earlier Cease-Fire

Kerry and Lavrov met several times in 10 days in two different countries in hopes of reaching an agreement to rein in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allow in relief supplies for civilians after the collapse of an earlier cease-fire signed in February. The pair spoke for about an hour on Monday in Hangzhou in talks a U.S. official described as productive.

Obama said he and Putin instructed their deputies “to keep working at it over the next several days.”

Backed by Russian warplanes, Assad’s forces have waged an air and ground campaign that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, sparked a humanitarian crisis and forced millions of Syrians to seek refuge in Europe. Syria is part of the area where the U.S. is targeting Islamic State fighters including through the use of drone strikes.

Russia and the U.S. have differed on what consequences to set if a cease-fire isn’t adhered to.

Cyber Tensions

The relationship between Obama and Putin has been strained in recent months over a number of issues such as cybersecurity. Security firms named Russia as the suspect in a hack of U.S. political party groups including the Democratic National Committee. U.S. officials have decried the attack but stopped short of assigning blame publicly.

The meeting with Putin also covered cybersecurity and Russia’s presence in Ukraine, Obama said.

“We’ve had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past, from other countries in the past,” Obama said. “We’re moving into a new area here where a number of countries have different capacities.”

Obama said he wanted to be sure not to “duplicate a cycle of escalation” as was seen in the past with arms races.

“What we cannot do is have a situation in which this becomes the wild, wild West in which countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in competition, unhealthy competition,” Obama said. “That’s been a topic of conversation with President Putin as it has been with other countries.”

The hack has became a focal point in the U.S. presidential election after Republican nominee Donald Trump weighed in, encouraging Russian hackers to look into e-mails sent by his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Putin last week in an interview with Bloomberg News denied that Russia’s government was behind the hacking of the thousands of DNC e-mails and documents. He said exposing the information that came out of the hack was for the public good.

Obama and Putin have also clashed for the past two years over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

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