Report

Obama and Putin Trade Blame Over Syria Debacle, but Agree to Talk

Faced with Russian military buildup in Syria, President Obama sits down with President Putin to coordinate divergent anti-terrorism strategies.

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Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin each blamed the other Monday at the United Nations for fueling extremism in Middle East, and especially for the bloody mess in Syria, but grudgingly conceded they may have no choice but to work together to end more than four years of massacres, migrations, and depredations that have already claimed more than 240,000 deaths.

Obama told the United Nations he is willing to work with two longtime foes — Russia and Iran — to end the Syrian civil war, but stood firm on U.S. demands that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad must go. Putin, in contrast, lauded Assad and Kurdish fighters as the only ones taking the fight to the Islamic State, as he sought to justify Russia’s increasing military involvement in Syria in the guise of an anti-terrorism campaign.

The dueling speeches at the U.N. General Assembly highlighted the Obama administration’s strategic drift more than four-and-a-half years after a civil uprising in Syria morphed into one of the deadliest modern civil wars. The United States has been unable to train or equip moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State, which has fed off Syria’s disintegration. Russia, which for years backed its Syrian client state, has elbowed its way into the center of the crisis in an 11th-hour bid to bolster its geopolitical position in the Middle East, long a goal of Putin’s. Now, with other countries in the region and even the head of the U.N. urging them to bury the hatchet, both sides may be forced to hold their noses and cooperate in pursuing a political transition.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said, before insisting that resolution must include the departure of Assad. “We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”

But in his lengthy speech, Obama appeared to acknowledge 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.”

Putin, in contrast, backed Assad to the hilt in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly in 10 years. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face,” he said. “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.”

Putin presented a sweeping indictment of Western military interventions from North Africa to the Middle East, saying they have left the regions in chaos and fueled the flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees across Europe’s borders. He said the Islamic State has filled its ranks with ex-Iraqi soldiers driven from power by the United States, Libyan radicals unleashed by the NATO-led intervention in the country, and “so-called ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition supported by Western countries.”

“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation: Do you realize now what you have done?” Putin said.

Likening Islamic extremists to the Nazis, Putin proposed the establishment of a coalition, like that which defeated Hitler, to drive the Islamic State and other Islamic radicals from Syria, Iraq, and beyond. “Today, we provide military and technical assistance both to Iraq and Syria and many other countries of the region who are fighting terrorist groups.”

Over the last month, 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 met face-to-face Monday afternoon. Before the meeting, the two leaders entered a small U.N. meeting room with a pair of U.S. and Russian flags, grinned slightly and shook hands. They answered no questions. The big power presidents had appeared together earlier in the day at the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s annual luncheon with world leaders. But they didn’t exchange pleasantries aside from a quick handshake across Ban’s empty chair while the U.N. chief spoke to the room of assembled officials.

Last week, U.S. officials confirmed the two leaders would meet in New York and said that they would focus primarily on Ukraine and Russia’s responsibility for safeguarding a cease-fire there. Kremlin officials insisted that Monday’s meeting would center on Syria.

“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.

After the meeting, a senior Obama administration official said the two men had a “business-like” and “focused” 90-minute discussion focused equally on the situation in Ukraine and that in Syria. Obama pressed Putin over Ukraine’s sovereignty, and stressed the need to implement the Minsk accord in the next few months, according to a White House pool report.

On Syria, Putin and Obama locked horns over the role left to Assad but evinced a “shared desire” to find a political solution. “We have a difference about what the outcome of that process would be,” particularly as it relates to Mr. Assad, the official said, according to the pool report. Officials suggested that Russian military assets in Syria might be acceptable if they were used solely to fight the Islamic State. But U.S. officials have few illusions over the scope of Russian activity.

“We have clarity on their objectives,” the official said, referring to the Russians, according to the report. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government.”

Putin said that Russia ruled out the prospect of Russian ground troops participating in military operations there, but he would not rule out the possibility of conducting air-strikes against the Islamic State, according to the Associated Press.

The U.S.-Russian approach may be a marriage of convenience. In a press conference Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John 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. Kerry met recently with top diplomats from Iran and Russia.

“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. Obama and Putin reportedly discussed deconflicting operations in Syria.

Despite sharp differences between the key powers, there appears to be a growing international consensus about the need to work together. Speaking to reporters at U.N. headquarters, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his government was willing to work with Russia or any other country to fight the Islamic State. But he also said that countries thinking of aiding Assad should remember that “Assad’s atrocities, war crimes” are responsible for the rise of the extremists.

“In the new Syria, there should not be any place for Assad or Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State. “Those who are defending that Assad should stay in power should not forget that now Europe is facing this refugee crisis because of Assad’s [presidency].”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also blamed the United States for the region’s woes, but left the door open to greater cooperation in the wake of a landmark deal between the two countries to limit Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon. “We must not forget that the roots of today’s wars, destruction, and terror can be found in the occupation, invasion, and military intervention of yesterday,” he said. “If we did not have the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the United States’ unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes.”

But Rouhani at least seemed to accept Obama’s olive branch. He praised the United States, along with the five other key powers, for its role in negotiating a landmark deal lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for submitting to greater international controls over its nuclear program. He said he hoped the deal could “herald a new era” of diplomacy to promote stability in the region.

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. Coupled with Russia’s military buildup in Syria, Obama’s congressional critics are having a field day. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia’s intelligence-sharing agreement with Baghdad, nominally a U.S. ally, “is a dramatic example of the diminution of … American influence in the region, particularly in Iraq.”

Ban, 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.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NOTE: This article was updated Tuesday morning with a corrected pool report of a luncheon handshake between Putin and Obama.

NOTE: This article was updated Monday evening after the Obama-Putin bilateral.

NOTE: The article was updated again late Monday evening after the conclusion of the bilateral.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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