WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says the United States is working with Britain to strengthen the moderate opposition in Syria and to push for the end of the hardline regime of President Bashar Assad.
Speaking at a White House news conference alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama called the violence in Syria appalling. The two leaders said their discussions touched on Syria the Mideast peace process, a proposed free trade pact with Europe and next month’s eight-nation economic summit in Northern Ireland.
Obama and Cameron said they were united on Syria.
“There is no more urgent international task,” said Cameron.
Last week, the Obama administration announced it will provide $100 million in new aid to Syria, strictly for humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees and not linked to any possible decision on arming the rebels who seek to topple Assad from power.
The Obama administration has said it is considering providing weapons to vetted units in Syria’s armed opposition, among other military options, following the recent revelation of a U.S. intelligence assessment that suggested chemical weapons use by the Assad regime.
But even as the two leaders focused on Syria, Obama was dogged in the press conference by the persisting domestic political controversies.
Obama called reports that U.S. tax collectors targeted conservative groups “outrageous” and said anyone responsible should be held accountable.
Obama said that Americans are properly concerned about acknowledgements from the Internal Revenue Service that conservative political groups were targeted during the 2012 election campaign to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.
He also pushed back strongly against fresh Republican criticism of the administration’s handling of last year’s deadly Benghazi attacks, calling it a “political sideshow.” Republicans have argued that the administration was trying to mislead Congress and the American people about the attack and its terrorist roots in the weeks prior to the 2012 November presidential election.
Cameron is heading to Boston after his visit to honour those slain and wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing. But he also returned to domestic matters at the press conference when he brushed off political pressure to move up a referendum he has pledged to hold by 2017 on his country’s membership in the European Union.
Cameron said he would push for European Union reforms that could ease British concerns about membership.
“I want to see Britain’s relationship with the European Union change and improve,” he said.
Obama also reiterated earlier comments backing continued British membership, though he diplomatically emphasized that the decision was for the British public.
“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.
Obama’s comments come as Cameron is facing growing pressure from members of his own Conservative Party to enshrine legislation on an EU referendum.
The growing clamour comes after Cameron’s Conservative Party suffered heavy losses in local elections, as voters appeared to favour the anti-European Union United Kingdom Independence Party.
Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum by 2017 — if he is re-elected in 2015 — was itself seen as an effort to shore up support in the Conservative party and appeal to its dissatisfied right wing.
Both leaders put in a plug for upcoming EU-US talks on a possible free trade agreement. Cameron said the negotiations could be launched ahead of next month’s meeting of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries, which he is hosting in in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland.
Cameron said that coming weeks will be crucial as the two sides eye what would be the world’s largest free trade agreement. He urged both sides to be prepared to tackle thorny trade disputes.
“That means everything on the table, even the difficult issues, and no exceptions,” he said.
He said that a deal would make the EU more competitive and appealing for Britain as it approaches its referendum.