Obama, Putin to discuss Syria during bilateral meeting

When President Obama heads to Northern Ireland next week for the annual G8 Summit, he'll have the opportunity to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin with their first one-on-one meeting in a year.

Russia has so far proven to be one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's key allies, scoffing at the United States' conclusion that Assad has used chemical weapons against opposition forces in Syria.

Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes told reporters Friday that the U.S. has given Russia ample evidence that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons, including physiological evidence.

"We have a broad range of evidence associated with the multiple incidents of chemical weapons use that we assess took place," he said. "That includes open-source reporting. It includes intelligence reporting. It includes the accounts of individuals. It also includes physiological samples of sarin that we've obtained from within Syria."

In spite of Russia's skepticism, Rhodes said the U.S. would continue to discuss with Russia the prospect of a political settlement in Syria that engages the opposition with the Assad regime. Russia does not agree with the U.S. that Assad must give up power for a political settlement to be successful. Rhodes, however, said it would be in everyone's best interest -- including Russia's -- for Assad to go.

"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," he said. "And the point that we've made to Russia is that the current course, in which Assad is not being appropriately pressured to step down from power by those who continue to support him in the international community, is bringing about those very outcomes."

While Mr. Obama will have the opportunity to discuss the situation in Syria next week with his foreign counterparts, he has yet to make any statement to the American public about his decision to ratchet up support to the Syrian opposition, including military opposition. There has been some political pressure for more communication on the matter.

"We are now witnessing in Syria what a world without decisive American leadership looks like. There is no more time for half measures," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement Friday. "I again call on the President to explain what he will do to respond to this humanitarian and national security nightmare."

House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told reporters that the administration should brief his committee on their goals and their proposed path to achieving them.

"What we've asked for is the White House to come up and give us a holistic plan," he said. "We've seen some things. But I think if they want to gain support here in Congress they're going to have to come up and brief a more fulsome plan where we can clearly show what our efforts are, what impact they will have and how we can do it in a way that doesn't get us too far into the Syrian conflict."

Former President Bill Clinton spoke with Bloomberg Television Friday and said, "The administration is right to be a little circumspect about how they're going to get these weapons in and what they're going to do."

"I feel good about the announcement, and I think we should wait and see what the details are," he said. "I think that it's not clear yet exactly who will do what, partly because the president wants to talk to the other people in the G8 about it, which I think is a good thing... And also, because the logistics of getting weapons into the area are somewhat complicated and risky... But I think, on balance, that's the right thing to do. I don't think that we should send troops there, but I don't think we should stay where we are. I think we should do more."

Rhodes noted Friday that the Syrian conflict remains a "fluid and dynamic situation."

"The situation on the ground will have its own twists and turns," he said. "Our own policy has been one of incrementally increased support for the opposition efforts to pressure the Assad regime."

The State Department did announce today that the U.S. has begun the process of readying $123 million of non-lethal aid -- first announced in April -- to the Syrian opposition via the Supreme Military Council. CBS News reported last week that the money will primarily be used for armored vehicles and communication gear, according to senior administration officials.

Rhodes noted Friday that there's been an "upward trajectory of assistance in general" as the situation in Syria has deteriorated.

He emphasized that while the situation remains fluid and the U.S. has contingency plans ready, "the one option that we've basically taken of the table is boots on the ground."

"We need to be humble here about our ability to solve a problem like Syria, certainly on our own," Rhodes said. "I think recent history teaches us that even when you have U.S. boots on the ground, you're not necessarily going to be able to prevent violence among civilian populations."

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