Russian leader more conciliatory after speeches in which he applauds Assad regime while Barack Obama condemns ‘might makes right’ doctrine
Vladimir Putin emerged from a rare face-to-face meeting with Barack Obama on Monday night, saying Russia and the US could find a way to work together on Syria, despite deep differences over the country’s leadership.
The US-Russian summit lasted 94 minutes, more than half an hour longer than planned, on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly where the two leaders had traded barbs only hours before, particularly over the future of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking to Russian journalists after the meeting, Putin said the two had found at least some common ground on the four-year conflict.
The Russian leader described the conversation with Obama as “very constructive, businesslike and very frank”.
“We had some points in common, and we had differences,” Putin said, according to a translation by the Russia Today satellite channel. “I think there is still a way we can work together on the problems we all face.”
He rejected calls earlier in the day from Obama and the French president, Francois Hollande, for Assad to stand down as part of a concerted campaign against Islamic State and other violent extremists.
“I respect my colleagues, the US president and the French president, but I don’t think they are Syrian citizens, so I don’t think they should be deciding on who should lead Syria,” he said.
However, Putin showed more flexibility than he had in his general assembly speech, acknowledging that political reform in Damascus could be part of a solution, but indicated that Assad would be a willing participant in that change.
“There can be simultaneous, political change, but President Assad has already said he agrees with that,” Putin said.
A senior US administration official later said the meeting between the two presidents had been “business-like” and “focused”.
“This was not a situation where either one of them was seeking to score points in a meeting,” the official said. “I think there was a shared desire to figure out a way in which we can address the situation in Syria.
“We have clarity on their objectives. Their objectives are to go after Isil and to support the government.”
Earlier in the day, Obama and Putin had clashed in an exchange of blunt rhetoricas they vied for global leadership on Syria and the fight against Isis.
It was a verbal duel that was reminiscent of some of the tensest episodes of the cold war.
In a throwback to that era, the Russian president, making his first appearance at the general assembly for a decade, was not in the chamber during Obama’s address. He was shown on Russian television walking down the steps of his official plane just as Obama began his address. He arrived at the UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan just after the US president had left the podium.
Likewise, when Putin was speaking, the US presence was reduced to relatively junior officials. And Ukrainian officials walked out during the Russian address.
The most contentious and divisive issue of all was over the continuing slaughter in Syria, the rise of Isis and the mass exodus of refugees from the conflict. And at the core of the US-Russian power struggle was the fate of Bashar al-Assad and whether he is the root of the problem or part of the solution.
It is a fundamental difference that has prevented concerted international action on Syria for the entirety of the four-year war, which has cost the lives of over 250,000 Syrians and driven more than 11 million from their homes. On Monday, against the green marble backdrop of the general assembly podium, the rift appeared as debilitating as ever.
Obama was first of the leaders to speak. He assailed states who gave in to the temptation of a “might makes right” philosophy.
“In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians because the alternative is surely worse,” Obama said in remarks clearly aimed primarily at Putin, who has repeatedly insisted that defeat of Isis can only be achieved by support of the “legitimate government” of Syria.
The US president indicated that he was ready to talk with everyone, including Russia and Iran, in seeking common ground on the issue, but equally clearly laid out US red lines, the most important of which was transition away from Assad.
“Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out Isil. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognises there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild,” he said.
Obama’s address was also an ode to the twin virtues of democracy and diplomacy, interwoven with admissions of when the US had fallen short of those ideals, in the invasion of Iraq, and the xenophobia that has risen to the surface in the nation’s current political discourse.
Putin’s address was different in tone. While Obama had repeatedly paused for dramatic effect, the Russian leader galloped through his lines. The American president talked optimistically about the common aspirations that united all peoples; Putin struck darker, conspiratorial notes.
He noted how Isis had drawn its strength from former Iraqi servicemen made jobless by the US-led invasion in 2003 and then by the western bombing of Libya that led to the destruction of the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli. He suggested that the religious extremists were sent deliberately into Syria by unnamed powers to destroy the secular, anti-western government in Damascus.
In his speech Putin showed no sign of willingness to compromise on Assad’s fate, not even conceding that Damascus might be ripe for “reform” after Isis was defeated – a more conciliatory formula put forward by the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. Instead, he increased his praise for the regime, which he said was “fighting valiantly against terror face to face in Syria”. Furthermore, he said, the Syrian forces had been struggling almost alone up till now.
Putin not only presented a rival narrative for the Syrian conflict – he also offered an alternative mechanism for dealing for it. The Russian leader will have left New York by the time Obama chairs a summit on combating Isis and violent extremism on Tuesday. Putin did not mention it. Instead, he called on UN member states to take part in a ministerial meeting convened by Russia in its current role as president of the UN security council, which would lead to a new UN resolution on combating Isis, presumably built around support for the Damascus regime.
On the evidence of the opening morning of a week’s worth of speeches at the general assembly, Putin had gathered some momentum. In her brief remarks on Syria, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, blamed only Isis and “associated groups” for the violence. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, did not mention Syria by name but stressed the importance of respect for national security as a pillar of the UN charter.
However, the French president, Francois Hollande, stuck to Paris’s position that Assad could have no part in a postwar Syria.
“Bashar al-Assad is the source of the problem. He cannot be part of the solution,” Hollande says. “Just because a terrorist group also carries out massacres doesn’t mean that pardons or amnesties the regime which created this situation…You can’t make the victims and the executioner work together.”
When his turn came, Rouhani blamed the US military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and its support for Israel for creating an environment for terrorism to flourish. In earlier remarks on Sunday, he had stuck to a line on Syria that was close to the Russians’, calling for the fight against Isis to take precedence over any aspirations for reform in Damascus. But in the debating chamber on Monday, he opted to stay out of the US-Russian clash, with all its cold war echoes.