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Obama and Putin Struggle to Find a Way Forward on Syria

Posted September 29th, 2015 at 12:09 pm (UTC-5)
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By Barbara Slavin

(New York) — More than a year after their last uncomfortable encounter, the presidents of the United States and Russia have managed to conduct a lengthy and civil discussion about the issue dominating this year’s U.N. General Assembly – the multisided, devastating civil war in Syria.

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin spoke for more than 90 minutes on Monday afternoon in a small conference room at UN headquarters. Their major difference was over whether it is possible to bring peace to Syria while Bashar al-Assad is in charge of what remains of the Syrian regime.

For Putin, who prefers authoritarianism to democratic disorder, Assad is a bulwark against the complete takeover of Syria by the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) and other Muslim fundamentalists. The Russian leader clearly regards those who have tried to overturn Middle East dictators such as Assad as naïve fools whose efforts have delivered only more grief and terrorism to the region.

“Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a flagrant destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself,” Putin said in his speech to the General Assembly Monday morning in an apparent reference to both the US-led campaign against Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and Arab and Western support for Syrian rebels. “Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and a social disaster,” Putin said.

The Russian leader especially derided those who back a “moderate” opposition in Syria. Drawing on his own background as an officer of the KGB, he warned that these factions “are just as clever as you are and you never know who is manipulating whom.”

Given the fiasco that the U.S. “train and equip” program in Syria has become – which even U.S. officials now admit has been a failure  — Putin has a point. But his solution – doubling down on Assad with more Russian military help – is a recipe for continuing conflict, more refugee flows and extremist recruitment possibly directed against Russia itself.

Obama, in his address to the General Assembly Monday, just a few hours before Putin, said Assad’s brutal response to peaceful protests in 2011 was the root cause of the appeal of Islamic extremism in Syria. But in a glimmer of compromise, Obama also spoke of what he called “a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader.”

This was a tacit recognition that with IS now the main threat to Syria’s territorial integrity, the Syrian dictator might have to stay a while longer in Damascus to avoid a total collapse of the Syrian state.

Appearing on MSNBC on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry amplified this reasoning, saying that Assad might remain to help “manage the way out of this mess” but then would be obliged to “ride off into the sunset” for the benefit of his beleaguered people.

Ultimately, Kerry said, Assad has to go because “the Sunni world will never accept Assad again.”

Reaching a solution to the Syrian war is going to require an extraordinary multilateral effort that may dwarf in complexity the diplomacy that led to the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers.

Chances for diplomacy are further complicated by a growing rift between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, the other major backer of Assad’s regime. Already at odds over Saudi military intervention in Yemen, the two countries have seen their relations sharply deteriorate in recent days following a stampede at the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia known as the hajj that killed at least 1,000 people, many of them Iranians.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who came to New York intending to take a victory lap after conclusion of the nuclear accord, cut short his stay to return home to receive the coffins of the victims. At every public appearance while he was in the U.S., he blasted the Saudi monarchy for “ineptitude” and even suggested that the Saudi focus on Yemen had deprived the Kingdom of adequate experienced manpower to manage the hajj.

Yet Rouhani seemed less wedded to Assad personally than Putin and less allergic to the notion of eventual political change in Syria. In his speech to the General Assembly, the Iranian president said Iran was “prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria” as well as Yemen and promote “the rule of the majority that represents the rights of minorities.”

The Iranian leader and other Iranian officials have pointed to the nuclear deal as proof that patient diplomacy can solve even the most difficult problems. Iran, of course, likes the format of the P5+1 and Iran because it puts the Islamic Republic on a par with the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.

The European Union also likes this arrangement because of the importance it gives to that body. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Monday night – after a meeting of the P5+1 foreign ministers and Iran – that she thought this was “a useful format for other crises.”

Thanks to the nuclear negotiations, the U.S. and Iran also have a solid channel to talk about Syria as well as bilateral issues such as the continued detention of Iranian American journalist Jason Rezaian and other dual nationals. And the U.S. can talk to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni Muslim states that have backed the opposition to Assad.

Cliff Kupchan, president of the Eurasia Group and an expert on both Iran and Russia, told VOA that he sees a glimmer of possibility for a diplomatic deal on Syria after the Putin-Obama meeting. While the U.S. and Russia remain at odds over Assad’s immediate future, “I think there’s a better chance than common wisdom assumes that the U.S. and Russian positions will evolve,” Kupchan said. “The question is whether the positions will evolve to the point where meaningful cooperation becomes possible.”

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