Obama, Cameron hold talks on Syria, EU, G8



British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) and US President Barack Obama at the NATO Summit on May 21, 2012.



UK Prime Minister David Cameron held talks with US President Barack Obama Monday.

Among the topics they touched on during a joint press conference were the conflict in Syria, trade relations between the United States and European Union and the upcoming G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Last week, the United States and Russia agreed to arrange an international peace conference, bringing representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition to the negotiating table.

Though no date was set for the conference, Cameron said "we must help drive this process," while meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.

During the press conference on Monday, Obama said the US was working with the UK to continue pressuring the government of Syria and strengthening the opposition. "We discussed Syria and the appalling violence being inflicted on the Syrian people," Obama said of his earlier talks with Cameron.

"We will continue to establish the facts surrounding the use of chemical weapons," he said, while stressing that the US would continue to provide humanitarian and non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition.

Cameron also reiterated the UK's support for the opposition, saying, "Syria's history is being written in the blood of its people. And it's happening on our watch."

While clarifying that the UK had not made the decision to arm the Syrian opposition, Cameron said the US and the UK were working to establish common ground with Russia, a staunch ally of the Assad regime, to broker a transition.

Cameron referred to his meeting with Putin last week, saying, "It is in both our interests that at the end of this there is a stable Syria."

Obama hailed the United States' special relationship with the UK, which he said was not only "rooted in shared interests" but also a "partnership of the heart."

Obama and Cameron also talked of a Transatlantic free trade deal between the US and EU which Cameron said could be worth 10 billion pounds ($15 billion) a year to the UK. Cameron said the next five weeks before the G8 summit are crucial to the deal.

Here's what to watch for during Cameron's three-day visit:

EU trade deal: Topping Cameron’s agenda is the EU-US free trade deal. The deal would cut down on tariffs and trade barriers and equalize regulations across the Atlantic, so that a product approved for the UK could automatically be eligible for sale in the US. The plan could inject $15 billion into the UK economy and $97 billion to US GDP, Cameron argued yesterday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. But, as with most trade deals, haggling over details can be expected. Cameron is reportedly hoping that talks with Obama this week will pave the way for formal negotiations to begin at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland next month, where the UK will also lobby for greater tax transparency across the globe.

Potentially awkward talking point: while Cameron is lobbying for this “once-in-a-generation prize,” his cabinet members and Tory colleagues back home are waging ever-louder arguments on why the UK should leave the EU. After two members of his own cabinet said publicly that they would leave the EU if the referendum was held today, Cameron has issued a clear rebuke: shut up and let me do the talking on this one.

When asked about this awkwardness during the press conference on Monday, Cameron said a referendum on the EU held today would be a false choice between the status quo and leaving. He said Britain was quite entitled to ask for and receive reforms as part of its membership in the EU.

Obama said he supported Cameron's stance on the EU membership issue, saying the UK's membership in the EU is an expression of its influence in the region and its role in the world. "I will say this, that David's basic point that you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it off makes some sense to me." he said.

Syria: Long an advocate of international action on Syria, Cameron will press Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to help bring about efforts to remove Assad from power and bring about a peaceful end to the civil war. The US and Europe are "slowly inching towards arming the rebels," said BBC North America editor Mark Mardell.

The conflict in Syria has killed a reported 70,000 and displaced more than a million people. Cameron is said to be optimistic about an imminent peace plan after his talk last week Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed Assad.

“While it is no secret that Britain and Russia have taken a different approach to Syria I was very struck in my conversations with President Putin that there is a recognition that it would be in all our interests to secure a safe and secure Syria with a democratic and pluralistic future and end the regional instability,” Cameron said during his flight to the US, as reported by Reuters.

Boston bombings: Cameron and Andrew Parker, the new head of the UK domestic security agency MI5, will tour the FBI’s new 24-7 strategic operations center in Washington before traveling to Boston. The PM is expected to quiz officials there on what Britain can be learned from the FBI’s response to the Boston marathon bombings and other terror attacks. "We need to learn the lessons of what happened in Boston and compare notes on the issue," Cameron said.

The prime minister is reportedly interested in learning whether the techniques used to shut down the city in the hunt for the suspects could work in the UK. “Lone wolf” attacks by extremists working independently, like the suspects in the Boston case, are thought to be the greatest domestic security threat facing the UK, the Telegraph reported.