Obama, Putin Agree on ISIS Danger But Not Assad
President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for 90 minutes Monday evening after delivering blistering addresses to the United Nations General Assembly that underscored deep divides over Syria along with Russia’s pledge to abide by an agreement for a cease-fire and withdrawal of military forces from Ukraine.
Officials described the meeting, the first between the two leaders since June 2014, as productive and business-like. The two men shared concerns about escalating chaos in Syria and the capture of territory by the Islamic State, but differ over Bashar al-Assad’s future as president of that nation.
The administration believes Russia’s deeds in Syria will be more important to watch than Putin’s words about what the Kremlin has in mind.
Obama seeks a political and “managed transition” to a new government in Syria, while Putin argues that the best way to combat terrorist and extremist groups that he says hold 60 percent of Syrian territory is to bolster Assad’s grip on power, not create a new power vacuum with his departure.
“This was not a situation where either one of them was seeking to score points in a meeting. I think there was a shared desire to figure out a way in which we can address the situation in Syria,” a senior administration official told reporters following the discussion. Half the bilateral meeting focused on Ukraine, and the rest dealt with Syria.
The meeting helped clarify for Obama’s team that Putin’s interest in Syria appears to be twofold: The Kremlin wants to keep Assad in power, and seeks to help Russia’s established Middle East ally battle ISIS, also known as ISIL. “We have clarity on their objectives,” one official told reporters. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government.”
At the annual United Nations 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, complicated by the rise of Islamic State extremists battling inside Syria and Iraq.
In his speech, Obama challenged Putin’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 took place as the administration reassesses a U.S. strategy that relies on airstrikes against ISIS, and what it concedes is a faltering $500 million program to train Syrian rebels to battle ISIS on the ground.
Following the meeting with Obama, Putin said he would not deploy Russian combat troops to fight ISIS on the ground, and could not “exclude” the idea that Russia might cooperate with the United States in a coalition he proposes to form and lead in the region to wage that battle.
“I think the Russians certainly understood the importance of there being a political resolution in Syria and there being a process that pursues a political resolution,” U.S. officials said. “We have a difference about what the outcome of that process would be,” particularly as it relates to Assad’s tenure as Syria’s president.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday said Russia’s aims in creating a military air base with fighter planes, pilots, tanks and supplies inside Syria were worrisome. “We have to avoid incidents, accidents,” he told CNN.
Obama and Putin agreed U.S. and Russian military forces must communicate about the ISIS battle to “de-conflict” – that is, avoid military accidents, a senior U.S. official said.
During his morning address, Obama 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 said on 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.”