Putin, Obama Meet On Syria, But Sharp Disagreements Remain

Putin, Obama Meet On Syria, But Sharp Disagreements Remain

1:27pm Sep 29, 2015
President Obama and Vladimir Putin met for 90 minutes after the Russian president's Monday speech at the United Nations.
President Obama and Vladimir Putin met for 90 minutes after the Russian president's Monday speech at the United Nations.
MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images

Russia's military buildup in Syria has raised alarms in the West, but many Russians see it as a necessary step to counter Islamist extremism.

President Vladimir Putin's speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Monday resonated sharply in Russia, where Muslims make up about 11 percent of the country's 143 million people.

After the speech, Presidents Obama and Putin spent nearly half of their 90-minute meeting focusing on Syria. Putin expressed his continued support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who has been losing ground to rebel groups, including the extremist Islamic State.

While they agreed that the United States and Russia can coordinate some of their operations in Syria, Obama and Putin disagree sharply on whether Assad can have any role in Syria's future.

In his speech, Putin called it "an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government," saying, "We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria."

Putin was clearly dismissing the efforts of the United States and its allies, who have been conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets.

The Western allies think that Assad is the root of the trouble in Syria, which started with his heavy-handed attempts to crush the opposition.

Analyst Fyodor Lukyanov says it may be politically hard for President Obama to acknowledge that Assad might be part of the solution. "It's very difficult to accept that, at least for now, the priority should be not regime change, not the exit of Assad, but to build a viable force to resist Islamic State."

Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, says some in Russia acknowledge that it may not be possible to regain territory that Assad has already lost. But it would be in Assad's — and Russia's — interest to keep control of the region he still holds around Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, where Russia has a naval base and a newly constructed air base.

Vladimir Sotnikov, a strategic analyst in Moscow, says it's important to remember that Russia feels a direct threat from Islamist extremism because of its significant Muslim population. The Kremlin says about 2,000 Russians are among the extremists fighting for ISIS.

"Russia is sincerely suggesting to the United States [that there should be] cooperation in the cause of fighting against the Islamic State," he says, "because this is a universal danger — not only for Russia, which is much closer to this region where the ISIS is operating than the United States."

Sotnikov rejects the suggestion made by some Western analysts that Putin is hoping to leverage his cooperation with the West in Syria to reduce tensions over Ukraine. Some U.S. analysts say Putin is hoping that renewed engagement will lead to the lifting of Western economic sanctions, but Sotnikov says he believes that Syria is not part of Putin's Ukraine strategy.

Lukyanov says Putin is willing to take the tremendous risk of getting caught in a military quagmire in Syria. If Russian service members were to be captured and subjected to the kind of tortures and killing for which the Islamic State is notorious, he says, Russia could "not just condemn brutal killing of its countrymen. Russia should do something, should act, should retaliate."

And that, Lukyanov says, is a way that Russia could be dragged into what he calls "a long-lasting and pretty hopeless conflict in the Middle East."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now we have the view from Moscow, which is very, very different. Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: President Obama and President Putin spent nearly half of their 90-minute meeting yesterday focusing on Syria. While they agree that the United States and Russia can coordinate some of their operations in Syria, they still disagree profoundly on whether Assad should play any role in the country's future. Putin expressed Russia's position in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Speaking through an interpreter, he called it an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.

FLINTOFF: Putin was clearly discounting the efforts of the United States and its allies, who've been conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets. The Western allies think that Assad is the root of the trouble in Syria, which started with his heavy-handed attempts to crush the opposition. Analyst Fyodor Lukyanov says it may be politically hard for President Obama to acknowledge that Assad might be part of the solution.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: It's very difficult to accept that, at least for now, the priority should be not regime change, not exit of Assad, but to build a viable force to resist Islamic State.

FLINTOFF: Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia and Global Affairs, says some in Russia acknowledge that it may not be possible to regain the territory that Assad has already lost. But it would be in Assad's and Russia's interest to keep control of the region that he still holds around Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, where Russia has a naval base and a newly constructed airbase. Vladimir Sotnikov, a strategic analyst in Moscow, says it's important to remember that Russia feels a direct threat from Islamist extremism because it has a large Muslim population of its own. The Kremlin says about 2,000 Russians are among the extremists fighting for ISIS.

VLADIMIR SOTNIKOV: Russia is sincerely suggesting to the United States the cooperation in the cause of fighting against the Islamic State because this is a universal danger, not only for Russia, which is much more closer to this region where the ISIS is operating than the United States.

FLINTOFF: Sotnikov rejects the suggestion of some Western analysts that Putin is hoping to use his cooperation with the West in Syria to reduce tensions over Ukraine. Some say that Putin is hoping that renewed engagement with the West will lead to the lifting of Western economic sanctions. But Sotnikov says he believes that Syria is not part of Putin's Ukraine strategy. Lukyanov says Putin is willing to take the tremendous risk of getting caught in a military quagmire in Syria, especially if Russian service members were captured and subjected to the kind of tortures and killings for which the Islamic State is notorious.

LUKYANOV: Russia cannot just condemn brutal killing of its countrymen. Russia should do something, should act, should retaliate.

FLINTOFF: And that, Lukyanov says, is a way that Russia could be dragged into what he calls a long-lasting and pretty hopeless conflict in the Middle East. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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