Obama, Putin clash over role for Assad in Syria

Timothy A. Clary, AFP | US President Barack Obama addresses the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly September 28, 2015 at the United Nations in New York.
6 min

US President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin called for cooperation to bringing an end to the war in Syria on Monday, but clashed over whether any peace plan should include Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.


Addressing the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, Obama said the US would be willing to work with both Russia and Iran to find a solution to the bloodshed that has ravaged Syria since civil war broke out more than four years ago.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said. "But we must recognise that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”

In voicing a willingness to deal with Iran and Russia, both staunch backers of Assad, Obama was openly acknowledging their influence in Syria and swallowing a somewhat bitter pill for the United States.

Obama was adamant over Washington’s continued refusal to support Assad, referring to him as a “tyrant” who “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children”.

However, he did not explicitly call for Assad’s ouster and he suggested there could be a “managed transition” away from his rule, the latest sign that despite US hostility towards the Syrian leader, it is willing to see him stay for some period of time.

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) group, as well an influx of Syrian refugees in Europe, has pressed some Western leaders into softening their stance on cooperation with Iran, Russia and even Assad in establishing peace in Syria.

'Enormous mistake to shun Assad'

Putin, speaking after Obama, called for a “broad coalition” of international actors in dealing with the conflict, particularly in combating the IS jihadist group, which has capitalised on the chaos in the country to gain huge swathes of territory.

But the Russian leader reaffirmed Moscow’s belief that support for Assad was the best way to stop the spread of the IS and other extremist groups.

“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,” Putin told the General Assembly.

“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 organisations in Syria,” he said.

Tehran has armed the Syrian government and, through its backing of Hezbollah fighters, helped Assad fight rebels seeking to end his family’s four-decade rule. Russia has recently engaged in a military build-up in Syria, where it has a naval base that serves as its foothold in the Middle East.

Frank discussion

The two leaders held a bilateral meeting later in the day, reaffirming their differences on Assad. A US official, speaking anonymously, told AP that the pair agreed to discuss a political transition in Syria, but remained at odds about what that would mean for the Syrian leader’s future.

The official said Obama and Putin’s 90-minute meeting – their first in two years – was dominated by discussions of the crises in Syria and Ukraine.

Putin said Russia had not ruled out joining air strikes against the IS group in Syria but would not send ground troops into combat.

The Russian leader said the talks were "very good, business-like and frank".

US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters outside the meeting that the talks were “very constructive”.

Kerry previously said that while Assad must step down, that need not immediately be upon reaching a settlement to end the country's civil war, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for Assad to be included in peace talks.

At the same time, with the US leading airstrikes against IS group targets in Syria and Russia increasing its military presence in the region, the two have found it necessary to increase communication. Earlier this month, Moscow and Washington held their first military-to-military conversation in more than a year.

France, which recently joined the US in launching airstrikes against the IS group in Syria, has remained among the Western countries most strongly opposed to any role for Assad in a political solution to the Syrian war.

French President François Hollande reiterated that position at the UN on Monday.

"Russia and Iran say they want to be part of a solution so we must work with these countries to explain to them that the route to a solution does not go through Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Meanwhile, Obama made it clear that the US has no intention in letting up on its anti-IS group military campaign.

“There is no room for accommodating an apocalyptic cult like the IS group and the United States makes no apology for using our military as part of a broad coalition to go after it,” Obama said Monday.

No return to ‘Cold War’ over Ukraine

The US president also used his speech to address another source of tension with Russia: defending Western sanctions against Moscow for its actions supporting rebels in Ukraine.

Obama said he was not seeking a return to the Cold War, but argued that the United States couldn't stand by while a nation's sovereignty was being violated.

"If that happens without consequences in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today," Obama said.

The Ukraine crisis has indeed driven US-Russian relations to post-Cold War lows.


Following talks with Obama, Putin said that the United States is taking part in efforts to settle the Ukrainian crisis, and that Washington was working with the Ukrainians and the Europeans to maintain diplomatic contacts with Russia to help with a settlement.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. A pro-Russian armed insurgency continues in eastern Ukraine, with Kiev and NATO accusing Moscow of backing and supplying it.

A shaky peace deal for Ukraine was brokered in February by France and Germany, and Russia doesn't want the United States to become engaged in those talks.

Another four-way meeting of leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany is set to take place in Paris on October 2.

US officials say Obama will stress to Putin the importance of local elections in Ukraine going forward in October without interference.


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