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Obama and Putin agree on need to counter ISIL, spar on near all else at UN

Leaders indicate vague alignment on threat from ISIL but set otherwise combative tone on Syria, Ukraine

In speeches at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama indicated a vague alignment on defeating “terrorism” in Syria, but butted heads on just about every aspect of the intractable war there — who should lead the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), what the international community’s long-term goals should be and who is ultimately to blame for four years of unrelenting bloodshed.

The addresses set a combative tone before a 95-minute meeting between the two leaders later on Monday — their first face-to-face discussion in a year — at which they discussed Russia’s military buildup in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and recent reports that Moscow intends to launch its own coalition against ISIL, separate from the U.S.-led airstrikes. 

A U.S. official said Obama and Putin  agreed to discuss a political transition in Syria, but remain at odds about what that would mean for Assad's future. The official insisted on anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting.

The official said Obama reiterated to Putin that he does not believe there is a path to stability in Syria with Assad in power. Putin has said the world needs to support Assad because his military has the best chance to defeat Islamic State militants.

The official said Obama and Putin's 90-minute meeting was dominated by discussions of the crises in Syria and Ukraine, with each consuming about half the discussion. 

After the meeting, Putin said 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.

He called the talks were "very constructive, business-like and frank."

Putin said  Russia has not ruled out joining air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria but would not send ground troops into combat. "We are thinking about it, and we don't exclude anything."

Before meeting Obama, Putin in his first speech at the General Assembly in a decade, had said, “We must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing on the basis of international law and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. ... Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of forces that are willing to resolutely resist those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.”

Critical to this effort, Putin said, was shoring up support for Moscow’s client in Syria, the beleaguered Assad regime, which has lost ground to mostly hard-line rebel factions in recent months. “We think it’s an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” Putin said.

That line, which Putin has maintained since the beginning of Syria’s war, came amid a period of optimistic speculation by analysts and diplomats that many key foreign powers were inching toward compromise on Assad’s future. Syria’s myriad rebel factions, including the floundering “moderates” supported by the West, have long insisted that guarantees of Assad’s departure were a condition for peace talks with the regime and its main backers, Russia and Iran. Assad has dismissed that notion out of hand.

But many experts have argued that Washington is quietly considering the idea of sidestepping the Assad question, especially as Obama abandons his project to arm and train moderate rebel factions as a counterweight to both Assad and ISIL. The most recent embarrassment in that saga came the morning of Obama’s U.N. address, when Defense officials confirmed that a commander from the first U.S.-trained brigade to be released into Syria handed over American arms to Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front). The regime’s downfall might only serve to widen the power vacuum in Syria that has allowed ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra to metastasize.

On Monday, however, Obama reverted to a hard line on Assad, whom he mentioned by name on five occasions — compared with just once in 2014. It was Assad, he said, who brutally cracked down on Syria’s peaceful protest movement, sparking a civil war and the chaos that birthed ISIL.

“Assad and his allies cannot simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing,” Obama said. “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 recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

U.S.-Russian antagonism pervaded other topics too. Putin, for example, rebutted criticism about the veto afforded each permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which Moscow has exercised on multiple occasions to block war crime proceedings against the Assad regime. As the death toll in Syria climbs above 250,000 and the Security Council’s paralysis precludes any intervention, many critics have called for the veto power to be limited or scrapped in war crime situations.

Putin defended his liberal use of the veto as fundamental to protecting different “opinions” within the international system, making reference to the U.N.’s 70th anniversary this year. If there is a crisis in this system, he said, it is due to the post–Cold War world order, which imposes oppressive development models on underdeveloped countries and acts outside the parameters of the U.N. when it pleases. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO strikes in Libya, both of which toppled oppressive regimes, defied international law and opened power vacuums that allowed hard-line groups like ISIL to take root, he said.

Western critics were quick to note that such rhetoric is dissonant with the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a move that was widely decried as illegal. A tense cease-fire has settled much of the fighting between Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and the pro-Western government in Kiev, but many say Moscow intends to keep the country, a former Soviet holding, in its sphere of influence by overseeing a frozen standoff.

Obama repeatedly slammed Putin for his meddling in Ukraine, arguing that Western sanctions imposed on Moscow in response were taking a steep toll on the Russian economy. “Imagine if, instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected,” Obama said. “That would be better for Ukraine but also better for Russia and better for the world.”

Obama telegraphed his desire for such urgent diplomacy on Syria, as Moscow continues to ship weapons and, reportedly, Russian troops to a Syrian air base along the Mediterranean in Latakia. The Russian-led coalition that Putin called for on Monday will add another layer to the escalation, raising the specter of direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian aircraft, American officials have warned. Others suspect a Russian-led coalition, whoever it includes, would seek to expand the scope of potential airstrikes to include other factions besides ISIL, bolstering the Assad regime on the ground and accruing negotiating capital ahead of peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking before a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Sunday, suggested those topics would be covered when Putin and Obama met in New York on Monday afternoon.

“This is the beginning of a genuine effort to see if there is a way to deconflict but also to find a way forward that will be effective in keeping a united, secular Syria that can be at peace and stable again without foreign troops present, and that’s our hope,” Kerry said.

With The Associated Press

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