Obama to Press Putin to Back Assad’s Removal in Syria

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US President Barack Obama will attempt to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin in their planned meeting Monday that it is in Moscow’s interest to support the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, a White House official said Friday in the wake of fresh US claims that Syria has used chemical weapons.

“It’s in Russia’s interest to join us in applying pressure on [Assad] to come to the table in a way that relinquishes his power and his standing in Syria,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters Friday.

The United States and Russia remain at loggerheads over the ongoing civil war in Syria as Obama and Putin prepare to meet on the sidelines of the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on Monday.

The meeting comes a day after Rhodes told reporters Thursday that US intelligence had concluded with “high confidence” that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons multiple times over the past year – an assessment that has prompted Obama’s decision to boost military aid to the Syrian rebels.

The chemical weapons claim was met with skepticism and derision by Russian officials.

“The Americans have tried to provide us with information on the use by the [Syrian] regime of chemical weapons, but I will be frank: The report does not seem convincing to us,” Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told reporters in Moscow on Friday.

Alexei Pushkov, the head of Russia’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, dismissed the US assessment outright Friday, calling its conclusions “fabricated.”

Rhodes told reporters Friday that Obama would offer an “interest-based” argument to Putin on the Syria issue during Monday’s meeting in an effort to persuade “the Russians that they can best protect their interests by being a part of a political settlement that is real and that enables a transition away from Assad’s rule.”

He added that “there are no illusions” that the talks between Obama and Putin about the Syria conflict would be easy.

“What Russia has articulated to us, and publicly, is that they don’t want to see a downward spiral, they don’t want to see a chaotic and unstable situation in the region, they don’t want to see extremist elements gaining a foothold in Syria,” Rhodes said.

Ushakov told reporters in Moscow that the United States and Russia “are not competing on Syria.”

“On the contrary, we are seeking a constructive solution to this issue which is vital for the situation in the region and the world,” he said.

Both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) expressed concern Friday about the US claims of multiple chemical weapons attacks in Syria over the past year, which the White House said have resulted in 100 to 150 deaths.

“These developments can only reinforce the importance of a political solution and should accelerate the efforts of the international community to find a definitive political solution to the conflict,” Catherin Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday called the US assessment “a matter of great concern,” Reuters reported.

“The international community has made clear that any use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law,” Rasmussen said in Brussels, Reuters said.

Meanwhile, US Sen. John McCain repeated his call Thursday for the Washington to establish a no-fly zone “to create a safe area” within Syria.

“You can’t do it with half measures. You can’t do it with just supplying weapons,” McCain told CNN.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Rhodes said the White House believed boosting assistance to the Syrian rebels is the most effective strategy at this point, saying a no-fly zone “would carry with it great and open-ended costs for the United States and the international community.”

“It’s far more complex to undertake the type of effort, for instance, in Syria than it was in Libya,” Rhodes said.

The Syrian government on Friday called White House claims about the use of chemical weapons in Syria “a statement full of lies based on fabricated information.”

Both sides in the ongoing Syrian civil war have traded allegations of chemical weapons use, with government officials accusing opposition forces of using chemical weapons against Assad’s military in a March attack outside of the northern city of Aleppo.

Some 93,000 people are believed to have died since fighting broke out between Syrian government forces and rebels in March 2011, according to the latest UN figures.

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