Obama won’t use Russian WTO hopes as leverage on Syria, says White House

Olivier Knox

President Barack Obama will not use Russia's hopes to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) as leverage to get Moscow to end its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said Thursday.

"We support Russia's accession to the WTO and we support measures that need to be taken to help bring that about," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Asked whether Obama, who meets early next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, would deliver an ultimatum demanding more help on Syria in return for WTO membership, Carney replied: "You're creating a connection here that I am not suggesting exists."

"I think that we have very frank discussions with the Russians and will continue to have them about Syria and other issues," Carney said. "And I know that other countries have those same discussions."

One day earlier, the spokesman had bluntly told Russia to stop arming Assad's forces, which have been carrying out a 15-month crackdown on Syria's opposition. Some observers have put the death toll at 14,000 people.The Obama Administration has long supported Russia's entry into the WTO, which enforces the rules of global trade and adjudicates disputes. Doing so will require Congress to repeal a Cold War-era law, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which aimed to use trade restrictions to compel the Soviet Union to allow the emigration of Jews.

A bipartisan group of senators has unveiled legislation to do so. The group includes Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who is seen as a leading contender to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if Obama wins a second term. While some Russia critics and human rights advocates may oppose the move, strong support from the business community is expected to push the measure to passage.

Obama is due to meet with Putin on the sidelines of a major economic summit next week, their first talks since the former KGB officer won reelection as president.

"The fact that we have disagreements with Russia on some matters -- Syria being one of them right now -- does not mean that we cannot move forward with the Russians on areas where we agree or where we are able to see more eye-to-eye," Carney said.

"The president looks forward to his first bilateral with President Putin. Our relationship with Russia has been -- since the President took office and changed our approach -- one where we cooperate in areas where we agree," the spokesman said.

Carney was referring to Obama's so-called "reset" of relations with Russia, an engagement strategy that many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, describe as all give and no get. Obama aides say that the policy has won greater cooperation from Russia on imposing and enforcing sanctions on Iran as well as concessions on supply routes to provision NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.

"That has been productive and useful for both countries -- and we are clear and transparent and frank about the areas where we disagree," Carney said.

The Obama-Putin meeting comes at a time of escalating bilateral tensions on a range of issues, including American missile defense plans, Syria and other matters. Putin notably skipped the NATO summit Obama hosted in Chicago late last month. And he also underlined the organized crime history of Obama's hometown.