Obama Opens the Door to a Syria Deal With Russia and Iran
The president said he is willing to work with the longtime military foes but insisted that Assad must go — eventually.
President Barack Obama said Monday he is willing to work with two longtime military foes — Russia and Iran — to end nearly five years of civil war in Syria but stood firm on U.S. demands that President Bashar al-Assad give up power as a necessary pathway to peace.
Obama’s olive branch was the flip side of the uncomfortable new reality he now faces in Syria and Shiite-led states in the Mideast. Russia, one of Assad’s longest and strongest benefactors, is boosting its military forces in Syria and doing so with the aid of Iran and even Iraq — a nation the United States has tried to turn into a reliable democratic ally.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said. “We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”
In a lengthy address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama made it clear that the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, has overtaken the removal of Assad as America’s primary national security goal in Syria. He conceded that resolving the crisis would require all the international players, presumably including the United States, to make painful compromises for peace. “Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and stomp out ISIL,” he said. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad into a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to the chaos.”
Over the last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed fighter jets, attack helicopters, and Russian forces to Syria to shore up Assad. In a CBS News interview that aired Sunday, Putin told journalist Charlie Rose that Russian troops would not participate in any ground operations in Syria — at least for the time being. But, he said, “we are talking about how to intensify our work both with President [Assad] and our partners in other countries.”
Putin and Obama are slated to meet for a bilateral meeting late Monday afternoon, but it’s far from clear if they will come to any agreement or precisely what they plan to discuss.
For weeks, Russian diplomats signaled hope that Obama and Putin would meet during the summit, a proposal that was greeted with U.S. skepticism. However, last week, U.S. officials announced the meeting would occur and focus primarily on Ukraine and Russia’s responsibility in fostering a cease-fire there.
But Moscow has its own plans. Kremlin officials said Monday’s meeting would be on Syria, where Russia has sought to assert itself more aggressively diplomatically and militarily.
“Of course, the primary topic will be Syria,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last week. Pressed on whether Ukraine would come up, Peskov said, “Well, if time allows.”
In a retort, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “there will be time” for Ukraine — although he doubted any “major announcement” would come from the meeting.
Over the last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has held talks on Syria with key allies, including Britain, Germany, France, and Saudi Arabia. He has also met with Iran and Russia’s top diplomats. In a joint press conference Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said it is “critical” that the United States and Russia coordinate their military efforts in Syria and that a larger diplomatic agreement is reached.
“This is the beginning of a genuine effort to see if there is a way to deconflict, but also to find a way forward that will be effective in keeping a united, secular Syria that can be at peace and stable again without foreign troops present, and that’s our hope,” Kerry said.
Over the weekend, Iraq caught the Obama administration by surprise, announcing an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran and Russia to coordinate military operations against the Islamic State and other extremist organizations.
The move comes as the West announced its own plans to step up military activities in Syria.
On Sunday, French President François Hollande announced that French fighter jets had carried out their first airstrikes against a purported Islamic State training camp near Deir al-Zor.
Speaking to reporters Sunday at U.N. headquarters, Hollande said France would not send ground forces into Syria. But he defended France’s entry into the conflict, saying it was acting in self-defense to stop Syria-based extremists from planning attacks against France.
“France struck in Syria this morning an Islamic State training camp which threatened the security of our country,” he said. “What we want is to know what is being prepared against us and what is being done against the Syrian population.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, voiced frustration that world powers had been unwilling so far to coordinate efforts to promote peace in Syria.
“Four years of diplomatic paralysis by the Security Council and others have allowed the crisis to spin out of control,” Ban said at the opening U.N. General Assembly debate. “The battle is also being driven by regional powers and rivalries. Weapons and money flowing into the country are fueling the fire.”
Ban said five nations — Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey — were key to fostering a settlement in Syria. “But as long as one side will not compromise with the other, it is futile to expect change on the ground,” he said.
Russia’s latest actions in Syria has fueled criticism of Obama’s Syria strategy from congressional critics. Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia’s intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, a U.S. ally, “is a dramatic example of the diminution of … American influence in the region, particularly in Iraq.”
“Look, we are reacting to Russian activities in Syria, in the region, and that’s because we have no strategy,” McCain told MSNBC on Monday. “We are surprised when Vladimir Putin exercises what is a very clear strategy, and that is to increase his influence in the region, preserve his port in the Mediterranean, and also make sure that Bashar al-Assad stays in power or a protégé of Bashar al-Assad, who he can control.”
Stepping back from the problems in the Middle East, Obama also repeatedly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine, where a shaky but often violated cease-fire exists between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists. “Consider Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further aggression in eastern Ukraine,” Obama said. “We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.”
“If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today,” he added. “That is the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia. It is not a desire to return to a cold war.”
Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch