Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday rejected President Obama's plea to end Moscow's military and political support of the dictatorial regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war as a prelude to peace talks.
"Of course, our opinions do not coincide," Putin said after one-on-one talks with Obama on the sidelines of an economic summit in Northern Ireland.
At a brief news session after their meeting, Obama agreed that "we do have differing perspectives on the problem," but he joined with Putin in expressing hope that a Geneva peace conference on Syria might be arranged without specifying any target date. Neither Putin nor Obama took questions from reporters.
"We want to try to resolve the issue through political means if possible," Obama said. Putin also expressed general support for a political settlement -- remarks that contrasted with earlier statements from Russian officials that criticized U.S. plans to send arms to the rebels and rejected U.S. claims that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons.
Assad also warned Britain and France against joining the U.S. in giving military support to the Supreme Military Council of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
"If the Europeans deliver weapons, then Europe's backyard will become terrorist, and Europe will pay the price for it," Assad was quoted as saying in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The Russians were incensed by the White House announcement last week that the U.S. would start sending small arms and ammunition to the rebels. Obama made the decision following a CIA finding that Assad's forces had killed at least 100 people with chemical weapons.
The Defense Department announced over the weekend that a squadron of Air Force F-16s and Patriot missile batteries – deployed to the region for the 20-nation Eagle Fire training exercises– would remain in Jordan in a show of support for the Jordanian kingdom.
The CIA's main pipeline for channeling arms to the Syrian rebels is likely to run through Jordan, which has taken in an estimated 180,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict, according to the United Nations.
A northern route for arms shipments has become more problematic, as Assad's forces have taken key towns in recent offensives and now are pressing to drive the rebels from Aleppo.
Moscow has seen the U.S. move to station F-16s in Jordan as the first step towards setting up a no-fly zone over Syria to counter Assad's major air power advantage over the rebels.
"We have a very clear-cut and principled position," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told news wires Monday. "All these maneuvers around no-fly zones and various humanitarian corridors are a direct consequence of disrespect for international law."
"We saw how such a (no-fly) zone was created and how it was enforced in the concrete case of Libya," Lukashevich said. "We do not want a repetition of this in the Syrian conflict. We will not allow this scenario as a matter of principle."
Lukashevich appeared to suggest Russia would thwart any UN approval of a no-fly zone. Russia and China have both previously used their vetoes in the UN Security Council to block international efforts against the Assad regime.
At least 93,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict since it erupted in March 2011, according to a recent U.N. estimate.
Millions have been displaced and the civil war is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni Muslims on the rebel side against Shia Muslims backing Assad.
The divisions deepened last month, when Lebanon's Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah joined the fight inside Syria on the Assad's side.
Over the weekend, Putin charged that aiding the rebels would be akin to supporting cannibalism.
"You will not deny that one does not really need to support … people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras," Putin said at a news conference. "Are these the people you want to support?"
Putin's reference was to a widely-circulated video purporting to show an Islamist militant rebel eating the heart of a slain Syrian soldier.
Thus far, the White House and the State Department have stressed that there are no immediate plans to impose a no-fly zone.
At the UN last week, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said that the no-fly "option has some downsides and limitations that we are very well aware of and will factor into any decision."
Rice, who will take over next month as National Security Advisor, backed up White House officials who said that a no-fly zone over Syria would be too "dangerous and costly" compared to the no-fly zone that NATO and Arab League allies imposed over Libya in 2011.
Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have repeatedly called for a no-fly zone to stop the civil war, but Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy National Security Advisor, said that a no-fly zone "is not some type of silver bullet."
"We don't at this point believe that the US has a national interest in pursuing a very intense, open-ended military engagement through a no-fly zone in Syria at this juncture," Rhodes said at a White House news briefing.
|Syria President Barack Obama Richard Sisk|