National Security

Obama, Putin share tense UN showdown

President Obama and Vladimir Putin gave dueling addresses to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday as they each sought to win global opinion over how best to deal with the Syrian civil war.

Tensions between the U.S. and Russian leaders were on full display before they sat down for a rare meeting Monday evening to discuss the bloody conflict in Syria, which has left hundreds of thousands dead and sparked a worldwide refugee crisis.

{mosads}Obama and Putin, both wearing stoic expressions, shook hands and posed for photographs for just a few seconds before heading into their highly anticipated meeting. 

As expected, no major breakthroughs were announced after the 90-minute meeting, which a senior administration official described as “business-like.”

Obama and Putin disagreed on the role Syrian President Bashar Assad should play in resolving the conflict. The U.S. views Assad as a destabilizing presence in Syria while the Russians see him as a key asset in battling Islamic extremists. 

“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,” the official told reporters. “We have a difference about what the outcome of that process would be” particularly with regard to Assad’s future.

In his speech, Obama made the case for diplomacy and slammed Russia for backing Assad, annexing Crimea and propping up separatists in Ukraine.

“Dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world,” he said. 

Obama also chided Russia for trampling on international law under the belief that “order must be imposed by force.”

“We’re told that such retrenchment is required to beat back disorder,” the U.S. president said. “In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse.”

Speaking an hour later, Putin pushed back against Obama, arguing that Assad’s government should be a partner in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces,”
Putin said.

If anything, he continued, the rise of ISIS was the direct result of the United States’ repeated meddling in other countries around the region, from its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan to the support for rebels during the Arab Spring.

“Policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionalism and impunity have never been abandoned,” the Russian president said

Chances for a major détente between Obama and Putin were always slim. But any hope appeared to dissipate soon after the Russian leader arrived in New York.

It wasn’t just Obama’s and Putin’s words that showed their cold relationship. At a luncheon for world leaders, a photo showed a stone-faced Obama clinking glasses with a grinning Putin after a toast.

Obama was seen offering a warm greeting to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a critic of Putin, who told a group of reporters he thought the U.S. president’s remarks “were very strong.”

During a group photo with leaders that did not include Putin, Obama said “OK, everybody look happy!”

Obama has frozen out Putin since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which began in March 2014. The two have not held a formal meeting for more than two years. 

White House officials had said they hoped to pressure Russia on Ukraine and achieve “clarity” from Putin about his intentions in Syria. They certainly got that.

Russia appeared to take the U.S. by surprise by announcing Sunday it reached an agreement with Iran, Syria and Iraq to share intelligence about ISIS. That group could rival the 62-nation coalition the U.S. has assembled to fight the extremist group. 

Putin on Monday spoke of the need for a “broad international coalition against terrorism” similar to the collection of allies that fought Adolf Hitler during World War II. 

Obama said the U.S. would be open to working with Iran and Russia to combat ISIS, a grudging acknowledgement of their influence in the Middle East. But he stressed there cannot be a return to the “status quo” under Assad, whose violent reign sparked an uprising.

“We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo,” he said. 

Obama sought to draw a contrast with Putin on Ukraine as well,
arguing that the U.S. is abiding by international norms as it responds with sanctions to Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and the eastern part of the country.

“We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated,” he said. 

Putin, however, shrugged off international criticism over Russia’s support for Ukrainian separatists.

Leaders need to find “a genuine consideration of the interests and rights of the people in the Donbass region and respect for their choice,” he said, referring to a self-proclaimed independent region.

The focus will return to Ukraine in the coming weeks, as cities across that country seek to hold local elections. Leaders in Donbass, which is held by pro-Russian separatists, have planned their own shadow polls, which threaten to disrupt a fragile peace agreement there.

Even as he was vexed by the multi-pronged challenges posed by Russia, Obama faced domestic critics who chided him for even agreeing to the meeting, arguing it rewards Putin’s strong-arm tactics.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said earlier on Monday that the White House’s decision to sit down with Putin “is as misguided as it is unnecessary.”

Tags Barack Obama Iran Iraq Russia Syria United Nations Vladimir Putin
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