The need to advance a political transition in Syria was highlight by U.S. and Russian presidents on Friday, agreeing on the need to seek out “new initiatives” to end the country’s civil war.
Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a telephone call also stressed the importance of new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met in Berlin earlier this week, “continuing their engagement” on Syria.
The White House statement did not elaborate further on the discussion between Obama and Putin on the Syria crisis. Moscow and Washington have long been at odds over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United States says he must go but Russia says his exit from power must not be a precondition for a negotiated settlement.
Obama and Putin also agreed to hold bilateral talks at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland in June.
"The leaders of both countries are united in their desire to avoid any steps that could negatively reflect on bilateral relations," the Kremlin said in a statement following the phone conversation, which was initiated by Obama.
Earlier Thursday, Joint U.N. and Arab League Special Envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said that hope for a solution to the crisis lies in the hands of Russia and the United States.
New U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday he believed U.S. policy of giving only “non-lethal support” to Syria’s opposition was the correct one.
Hagel’s comments, at his first news briefing since taking over the Pentagon on Wednesday, came a day after the United States said it would for the first time give non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and more than double its aid to Syria’s civilian opposition.
The moves disappointed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who are clamoring for Western weapons, something U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refused to provide.
Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, disclosed earlier this month that he joined the heads of the State Department and CIA last year in recommending arming the rebels.
Still, Panetta told Congress on Feb. 7 he ultimately supported Obama’s decision to restrict aid to Syria.
“It’s clear what ... the administration’s policy is on Syria: non-lethal assistance,” Hagel told reporters.
“I think the policy that the United States has is the correct policy.”
More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.
The United States has so far given $385 million in humanitarian aid, but Obama has been wary of sending weapons, arguing it would be difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.