US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin clashed Monday over their competing visions for Syria, with Obama urging a political transition to replace the Syrian president but Putin warning it would be a mistake to abandon the current government. Obama and Putin’s dueling speeches at a United Nations General Assembly summit served as a public preview of their private meeting early Tuesday. The sit-down marks their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year and comes amid escalating Russian military engagement in Syria.
Obama said he was open to working with Russia, as well as Iran, to bring Syria’s civil war to an end. He called for a “managed transition” that would result in the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have clashed with rebels for more than four years, creating a vacuum for the ISIS and other extremist groups.
“We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo,” Obama said.
Putin, however, urged the world to stick with Assad, arguing that his military is the only viable option for defeating the ISIS.
“We believe it’s a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those who are bravely fighting terror face-to-face,” Putin said.
Obama and Putin’s disparate views of the grim situation in Syria left little indication of how the two countries might work together to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and resulted in a flood of refugees.
Despite Obama’s staunch opposition to Assad remaining in power, the US has struggled to energize a political process to push him from power. Russia has long been a major obstacle, shielding Assad from UN sanctions and continuing to provide the Syrian government with weapons.
In fact, Russia has appeared to deepen its support for Assad in recent weeks, sending additional military equipment and troops with the justification that it is helping the government fight ISIS. The military buildup has confounded US officials, who spent the summer hoping Russia’s patience with Assad was waning and political negotiations could be started. Putin Sunday said in an interview with US television networks that Russia has no plans for now to deploy combat troops in Syria.
“Russia will not take part in any field operations on the territory of Syria or in other states; at least, we do not plan it for now,” he said in a transcript of the interview.
While Putin didn’t call out the US by name during his UN speech, he criticized efforts to arm “moderate” rebels in Syria, saying Western-backed fighters have later come to join the ISIS.
The US has little to show for its efforts to build a moderate Syrian ground force that can effectively fight the extremists.
The UN secretary-general for the first time called for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the International Criminal Court. In his state of world address to leaders, Ban Ki-moon said five countries “hold the key” to a political solution to Syria: Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.
Obama and Putin each framed his case for Syria’s future in the context of a broader approach to the world, launching veiled criticisms at each other.
The US president criticized nations that believe “might makes right,” and he sought instead to highlight the benefits of diplomacy. He touted his administration’s efforts to restore ties with Cuba after a half-century freeze and the completion of a nuclear accord with Iran, noting that Russia was a key partner in negotiating the Iran deal.
Putin, without naming the United States, accused Washington of trying to enforce its will on others and mulling a possible reform of the UN, which he suggested stands in the way of the perceived US domination.
“After the end of the Cold War, the single center of domination has emerged in the world,” Putin said. “Those who have found themselves on top of that pyramid were tempted to think that since they are so strong and singular, they know what to do better than others and it’s unnecessary to pay any attention to the UN.
Obama and Putin briefly shook hands during a leaders’ lunch that followed the morning of speeches. Though they were seated at the same table, with only UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon between them, the presidents did not appear to speak.
Obama and Putin have long had a strained relationship, with ties deteriorating to post-Cold War lows after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and allegedly backed rebels in Ukraine’s east. The US has sought to punish Russia through a barrage of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, including no formal bilateral meetings between Obama and Putin.
US officials said the crisis in Syria, as well as the continued conflict in Ukraine, necessitated an in-person meeting with Putin. In addition to assessing the Russian leader’s maneuvers in Syria, officials said Obama would push Putin to fully implement a shaky peace deal for Ukraine, including allowing local elections to go forward next month without interference.
Obama, in his address to the UN, said Washington wasn’t seeking a return to the Cold War but couldn’t stand by while Ukraine’s sovereignty was being violated. “If that happens without consequences in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today.”
Some European powers seem to be softening their stance, signaling he could stay on in an interim role, but France’s President Francois Hollande stuck close to Obama’s line. “Russia and Iran say they want to be part of a solution,” he said. “So we must work with these countries to explain to them that the route to a solution does not go through Bashar Assad.”
Russia and the United States are expected to take part in Syria peace talks in October, along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.
A meeting of an international contact group of the “most influential outside players” will “be pushed forward to October after the UN General Assembly,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, quoted by RIA Novosti news agency.
Russia wants the talks to happen “as quickly as possible,” he added.
Elsewhere, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi defended his country’s intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, Syria and Iran, saying that Baghdad needed to share intelligence with these countries and others in order to defeat ISIS. Abadi also welcomed Russia’s “recent interest” in battling ISIS.
Copyright © 2019, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.