WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have reaffirmed their determination to achieve a negotiated solution to end Syria's civil war, through a hoped for peace conference. The president also faced questions about the controversy over last year's terrorist attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya.
In their first Oval Office talks since Obama's re-election, the two leaders discussed steps to persuade Syria's rebels, and President Bashar al-Assad's government to join an as yet unscheduled international conference.
Cameron's U.S. visit follows his talks last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and earlier discussions Secretary of State John Kerry had with the Russian leader.
Obama said the United States and Britain will continue to increase pressure on the Assad regime, strengthen Syria's "moderate opposition" and prepare for a Syria without Assad.
"If, in fact, we can broker a peaceful political transition that leads Assad's departure, but a state in Syria that is still intact, that accommodates the interests of all the ethnic groups and all the religious groups inside of Syria, and that ends the bloodshed, stabilizes the situation, that is not just going to be good for us, that will be food for everybody, and we're going to be very persistent in trying to make that happen," said Obama.
Syria's opposition coalition insists President Assad cannot remain in power as part of a negotiated agreement. Rebels said they are consulting with key Arab state backers and Turkey, before deciding whether to participate.
Both leaders stressed the importance of Russia's support. Cameron said he believes there is political will and common ground to make the conference happen.
"Both the Russian president, the American president, and myself, I think we can all see that the current trajectory of how things are going is not actually in anybody's interest, so it is worth this major diplomatic effort, which we are all together leading, this major diplomatic effort to bring the parties to the table to achieve a transition at the top in Syria, so that we can make the change that country needs," said Cameron.
Cameron said the European Union has made no decision to supply arms to Syria's rebels. He said members continue to examine if further changes can be made to the E.U. arms embargo to support Syria's opposition.
Obama also faced a question about the controversy over changes his administration made to public talking points about last year's terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in the attack.
With opposition Republicans in Congress pressing the White House to release additional information, a defiant Obama called the controversy a political "sideshow."
"We dishonor them when we turn things likes this into a political circus. What happened was tragic. It was carried out by extremists inside of Libya. We are out there trying to hunt down the folks who carried this out and we are trying to make sure that we fix the system so it does not happen again," said the president.
Obama said in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack it was not clear who was responsible or what their motivations were. He said emails detailing administration revisions to talking points were given to congressional committees several months ago, but were suddenly "spun up as if there was something new to the story."
Monday's talks also covered the agenda for next month's G8 Summit of the world's wealthiest industrialized nations, which Cameron is hosting in Northern Ireland.
The two men also talked about the transition in Afghanistan to a support role for foreign forces, Mideast peace efforts, and P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Obama said the burden remains on Iran to resolve international concerns over its nuclear program.
Also discussed were counter-terrorism efforts in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.