Putin, Obama Air Opposing Views on Syria
Hours before a planned evening meeting in New York on Monday, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin clashed during morning speeches over how to combat Islamic State fighters and whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should exit in what the U.S. president now calls “a managed transition.”
At the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering of world leaders, Obama said the United States “is prepared to work with any nation,” including Russia and Iran, to help resolve four years of civil war in Syria, made worse by the rise of ISIS (also known as ISIL) extremists battling inside Syria and Iraq.
Obama challenged the Kremlin’s eagerness to back Assad, including with a new Russian military air base inside Syria, although the administration commended an emerging global consensus that the volatility and human suffering in Syria and ISIS’s ideological and territorial spread must be “stabilized.”
“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 so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild,” Obama said, noting that Assad is a dictator who has dropped “barrel bombs on innocent children.”
The Obama-Putin meeting, the first since June 2014, comes as the administration is reassessing a U.S. strategy that relies on airstrikes and what it concedes is a faltering $500 million program to train Syrian rebels to battle ISIS on the ground. Obama wants to learn from Putin what Russia’s military ambitions in Syria entail.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia’s aims in creating a military air base with fighter planes, pilots, tanks and supplies inside Syria remained unclear. “We have to avoid incidents, accidents,” he said during a CNN interview.
The U.S. president did not offer new proposals to defeat ISIS, but repeated the U.S., U.N. and NATO convictions that a political transition in Syria is essential to resolving the root causes of the Islamic extremists’ strength in the region.
Putin, who is seeking prominence on the world stage despite international sanctions imposed after Russia’s takeover of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, accused the United States of “aggressive foreign interference” that created a leadership vacuum in the Middle East that was eventually filled with extremists and terrorists.
“Russia has always been consistently fighting against terrorism in all forms,” Putin said during his United Nations address. “Today we provide military and technical assistance both to Iraq and Syria, and many other countries of the region that are fighting terrorist groups.”
Rather than expel Assad from power, Putin argued for his continued leadership in Syria, from which more than 4 million people have fled, creating a refugee crisis in Europe.
“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,” the Russian president said, ignoring that Syria is considered a state sponsor of terror. “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurds militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” Putin argued.
On Sunday, Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran announced an intelligence-sharing agreement aimed at thwarting ISIS. The collaboration appeared to take the Obama administration by surprise, but in the region it was described as old news.
The Iraqi military’s Joint Operations Command announced the information-sharing accord in a written statement.
“What we're seeing now is some limited cooperation,” said Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, said Monday. “It's directed at a common enemy, and that’s ISIL, and that's not a bad thing. Of course, Iraq is a sovereign country; it has the right to decide where it gets help from,” he told CNN.
Blinken said Russia has been hunting for a ways “to get back in the game” as an international power broker because of its isolation following the Russian-backed separatist march into Ukraine. But the administration believes a separate ring of intelligence sharing that cuts the United States out is unnecessary, he argued.
“Russia has actually been pushing this idea of a new coalition. But the fact of the matter is, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. And the Iraqis are [separately] cooperating with the coalition of 60 or more countries” joined in the anti-ISIS fight, Blinken added.
Obama used his U.N. address to warn Putin that the leading world powers are not so distracted by events in Syria that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would sidestep continued scrutiny.
“You can try to control access to information but you cannot turn a lie into truth,” Obama told the U.N. audience.
Mocking Russia’s state-run media coverage of Putin’s nationalist message, the U.S. president said, “The Ukrainian people are more interested than ever in aligning with Europe instead of Russia. Sanctions have led to capital flight, a contracting economy, a fallen ruble and the emigration of more educated Russians.”