President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan projected a united front Thursday on Syria, keeping stark differences about how much the U.S. should intervene behind closed doors as they looked to Russia and the global community to close ranks behind efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Under a pair of umbrellas outside a drizzly White House, the two leaders offered no hints about new actions either country would take, but pledged to keep upping the pressure on Assad to leave.
“I don’t think anybody in the region, including the prime minister, would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside of Syria,” Obama said.
Erdogan, speaking in Turkish, called attention to where the U.S. and Turkey have spoken with one voice.
“Our views do overlap,” he said. “We will continue to explore what we can do together.”
Harmony in the White House Rose Garden obscured the intense debates both leaders are confronting at home and abroad about how to bring to an end a conflict that started in 2011 as a popular uprising and has escalated to claim more than 70,000 lives. Instead, Obama and Erdogan professed both impatience and optimism, hoping that unanimity among allies may compel other players in the conflict —namely, Russia — to get in line.
“What we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition,” Obama said. “I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives about a serious political transition that all the parties can buy into may yield results.”
Mindful that support from Russia, the Syrian regime’s most powerful ally, is a key factor allowing Assad to cling to power, the Obama administration is looking hopefully to a joint U.S.-Russian push to launch peace talks between the regime and the opposition, possibly in early June. But those hopes have been somewhat dampened by word that Russia was planning to sell an advanced air defense system to Syria that could complicate further military intervention, and by Russia’s demand that Iran be included in the talks.
On Wednesday, the U.N. General Assembly approved an Arab-backed resolution calling for a political transition in Syria, but more than 70 countries refused to vote “yes” because of its support for the main opposition group and fears the resolution could torpedo a new U.S.-Russia effort to end the escalating conflict.