International efforts to halt the violence are deadlocked because Russia and China, which wield vetoes in the UN Security Council, have blocked tougher action against Assad. They say the solution must come through political dialogue, an approach most of the Syrian opposition rejects.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin had shifted his view of Assad during talks with Obama and other world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, and that discussions were now focused on a transition of power in Syria.
But Putin immediately seemed to contradict that notion, telling reporters at the end of the summit: “We believe that nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be brought to power, who should be removed from power.”
Russia has been the staunchest backer of Assad and his military crackdown against militants and protesters in Syria, including supplying arms to the Syrian government.
Speaking at the summit, Obama said Assad has lost all legitimacy and that it was impossible to conceive of any solution to the violence in Syria that leaves him in power. Obama conceded he had failed to make a breakthrough with the leaders of Russia or China despite intensive talks.
“I wouldn't suggest that at this point the United States and the rest of the international community are aligned with Russia and China in their positions, but I do think they recognize the grave dangers of all-out civil war,” he told reporters.
He said it is important for the world community to work with the United Nations and international mediator Kofi Annan “on what a political transition would look like. ... But I don't think it would be fair to say that the Russians and the Chinese are signed on at this point.”
Alarmed but apparently impotent to resolve the crisis, the outside world is deeply divided in its response to an increasingly sectarian conflict that threatens to become a proxy war for regional powers.
The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in 15 months of violence and unrest.