“We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war,” Obama said in brief remarks to reporters after the meeting.
Obama called the violence “horrific,” and added that he and Putin agreed to work with the United Nations, mediator Kofi Annan and other “international actors” to find a resolution.
Putin said that he and Obama found “many commonalities” on a range of issues and now will “further develop our contacts both on a personal level and on the level of our experts involved.”
The meeting, held on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit, came just days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Russia of causing a “dramatic escalation” of the crisis in Syria by shipping helicopters to the regime there. She later backtracked, saying the helicopters had merely been in Russia for routine repairs.
Three weeks ago, the United States and 10 other countries expelled Syrian diplomats following the massacre of more than 100 people in the Syrian village of Houla.
Administration officials described Obama’s conversation with Putin as fruitful, with the two leaders also discussing Iran, bilateral trade and missile defense. But it was Syria that dominated the talk.
The Russian president agreed that a “political process” must be established in Syria to prepare for a democratic government, even though he did not directly address Assad’s future, the White House aides said.
While Obama emphasized that Assad must go, Putin pursued “a bigger discussion,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
The Russians “want to talk about what happens the day after” a transition, explained McFaul, who was at the meeting. “They want to broaden our aperture. The Russians want to remind us that the day after the fall of a leader, the political transition, the political process goes on.”
McFaul added that the meeting lasted so long because the presidents “didn’t want to stop talking about Syria. Both leaders want to make sure the leader on the other side of the table understands each other’s motivations.”
Reporters allowed into the room described Putin as leaning away from Obama when he spoke and avoiding eye contact. The two have had a frosty relationship since the only other time they met, in 2009 when Obama traveled to Russia and Putin was prime minister.
Despite the Obama administration’s desire to “reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship, Putin did not attend the Group of Eight summit at Camp David last month, and Obama will not go to an Asian economic summit scheduled in Russia this fall.