Russia and the US have been striving for weeks to secure a ceasefire between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and moderate rebels that would expand access for hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.
The strategy has hinged on an unlikely US-Russian militarily partnership against extremist groups operating in Syria.
But beyond the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the two powers have conflicting views about who fits in that category.
“We’re not there yet,” Obama said on the sidelines of an economic summit in Hangzhou China, where across town US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were trying to hash out the deal.
“It’s premature for us to say that there is a clear path forward, but there is the possibility at least for us to make some progress on that front.”
A senior State Department official said the talks hit a stumble on Saturday when Russia pulled back from agreement on issues the US negotiators believed had been settled. Kerry and Lavrov were consulting with their governments ahead of today’s continuation of discussions.
The conflict has killed as many as a half-million people since 2011 and caused millions of Syria to flee from their homes, contributing to a global migration crisis. Amid the chaos, IS has emerged as a global terror threat.
Kerry and Lavrov’s talks on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit represent their third significant attempt since July to finalise a new US-Russian military partnership that Moscow has long sought. The package would include provisions so aid can reach besieged areas of Syria and measures to prevent Assad’s government from bombing areas where US-backed rebels are operating.
US officials have said that as part of a deal, Russia would have to halt offensives by Assad’s government, something it has failed to do over months of diplomatic efforts.
Negotiators had been hopeful a deal could come together while world leaders gathered in China, and American officials were optimistic enough that they invited reporters to a planned announcement by Kerry and Lavrov.
But officials removed Lavrov’s podium just before Kerry came out – alone – to announce that no agreement had been finalised.