President Obama chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of a luncheon for world leaders at the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly. (European Pressphoto Agency)
UNITED NATIONS — President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out sharply competing visions Monday about how to tackle the ongoing conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, with each blaming the other for the region’s turmoil even as they signaled a willingness to address it together.
In speeches to the U.N. General Assembly less than two hours apart, each leader said he embraced a foreign policy approach that respects international norms that are essential to global stability. Later in the day, the two met privately to hash out their differences and to see whether there was room for cooperation. The closed-door session lasted more than an hour and a half, ending just before Obama was scheduled to host a reception for delegates.
After the session, Putin left for Moscow. In brief remarks to Russian reporters, he described relations between the two countries as “regretfully at a rather low level” due to U.S. resistance but said that “we now have an understanding that our work needs to be strengthened, at least on the bilateral basis. We are now thinking together on the creation of appropriate mechanisms.”
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting, said that while it gave Obama “clarity on their objectives,” the two sides continued to disagree on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the conflict and his future.
Russia’s “objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government,” the official said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. Administration officials have expressed concern that new Russian deployments in Syria would bolster Assad’s fight against his opponents rather than degrade the militants.
In his speech, Obama took direct aim at Russia’s military buildup in Syria as well as its support for Ukrainian separatists, saying, “We are told that such retrenchment is required to beat back disorder, that it’s the only way to stamp out terrorism, or prevent foreign meddling.
“But I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backward. . . . And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences.”
Then Putin had a question. “I cannot help asking those who have forced this situation, do you realize now what you have done?” he said in remarks that never mentioned but were clearly directed at the United States. “Policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”
Beyond the barbs, the two raised the prospect of cooperating more closely on fighting Islamist terrorists and brokering a political solution in Syria, where war has raged for 4 1/2 years. Obama and Putin — who opened their first extended, formal meeting in two years with a stiff handshake before the cameras — remain divided over Assad, whom Obama wants ousted and Putin continues to back.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said in his 42-minute speech. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo. . . . And so Assad and his allies cannot simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.”
Russia has directly challenged U.S. military and diplomatic dominance in the region and the U.S.-led coalition air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Over the past month, Putin has expanded Russia’s long-running provision of weapons to Assad with deployments of tanks and aircraft. Over the weekend, Russia and Iraq announced that they would establish a rival anti-militant coalition in Baghdad to include Iran and Syria.
Russia maintains that Western intervention in Syria is a violation of international law.
Putin proposed creating a “broad international coalition” that he compared to the “anti-Hilter coalition” during World War II.
Russia, the current chair of the U.N. Security Council, has called for a meeting next month to discuss how to better combat extremism. Moscow has also proposed a meeting among itself, the United States and the governments of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt on coordination over Syria.
The Obama administration has not yet responded to the latter proposal, and it remains unclear whether Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni Arab state opposed to Assad, and Iran, the Syrian leader’s other main backer, would agree to cooperate on any Syrian initiative.
Leading European members of the U.S.-led coalition, which has been conducting air attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over the past year, have indicated that they believe the idea — and some cooperation with Russia — is worth exploring.
French President François Hollande, who last week authorized his country’s first air attacks in Syria, said Monday that “today, the moderate opposition is weak, Bashar al-Assad is weak, and ISIL is strong.”
“We can’t stick to our original enemies,” he said in a morning session with reporters. “We have to gather everybody together.”
“If Saudi Arabia and Iran can find agreement on the future of Syria, then there can be an answer,” Hollande said.
In comments last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to be softening their position toward Assad, at least temporarily. “We have to speak with many actors; this includes Assad, but others as well,” Merkel said. “Not only with the United States of America, Russia, but with important regional partners, Iran, and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia.”
European views have been influenced not only by the stagnation in the Syrian conflict and the Islamic State’s expansion in Iraq, but also by the hundreds of thousands of refugees — many of them from Syria — who have been pouring into their countries.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised those European countries that have provided asylum but urged them to do more. “After the Second World War, it was Europeans seeking the world’s assistance,” Ban said.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was the first world leader to address the General Assembly on Monday, drew applause when she noted that her country has already provided shelter to many Syrian refugees. Brazil loosened restrictions two years ago and has issued more than 7,000 visas to Syrian refugees at this point — more than any other country in Latin America.
“We have our arms open to welcome refugees,” she said. “We are a multiethnic nation.”
Obama and Putin also offered differing accounts of what had transpired in Ukraine, where Russia has annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the country’s southeast.
Although Putin devoted the bulk of his speech to Syria and terrorism, he repeated Russia’s charge that the overthrow of Ukraine’s government early last year was “orchestrated from outside.” He said Russia would adhere to the Minsk agreements, once they gave adequate representation to the legitimate demands of eastern Ukraine separatists that Moscow has backed.
Obama, however, said the West would continue to impose economic sanctions on Russia unless it reversed course. “We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.”
While relations with Russia rank highest on Obama’s priority list during this visit, his agenda includes other major bilateral meetings and working sessions. The president met privately Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pressing him to adopt a more stringent target for cutting India’s carbon emissions in the coming decades, and he convened a summit on bolstering U.N. peacekeeping forces.On Tuesday, the president will sit down with Cuban President Raúl Castro and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Indian officials say they will announce their post-2020 climate target later this week. While they have indicated that they will embrace an ambitious goal for expanding renewable energy sources, they have balked at the idea of committing to cutting their overall carbon output in the near future.
Modi, meanwhile, reiterated his country’s commitment to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. “The president and I share an uncompromising commitment on climate change without affecting our ability to meet the development aspirations of humanity,” he said.