Obama, prime minister focus on Syria at White House

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.

Cameron also announced over $45 million in humanitarian aid for Syria and over $15 million in non-lethal support for opposition rebels.

Last week, the Obama administration also 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.

Cameron is heading to Boston after his visit to honor 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 clamor comes after Cameron’s Conservative Party suffered heavy losses in local elections, as voters appeared to favor 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.

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