President Obama and French counterpart Francois Hollande said Tuesday that they are united in backing rebel forces in Syria’s civil war and charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin has the blood of Syrian people on his hands. The unusually pointed criticism comes in the midst of the Sochi Winter Olympics, a pet project of the Russian leader and a gathering that traditionally has muted international disputes while the Olympic torch was lit.
Despite their apparent accord on Syria, Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande were reminded again of the limits of their ability to act, when Russia doubled down on its opposition to a United Nations resolution designed to free up desperately needed humanitarian aid for war-ravaged civilians.
That didn’t stop Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande — on a three-day U.S. visit that included an extravagant state dinner at the White House on Tuesday evening — from using the bully pulpit of a joint press conference to condemn Moscow’s obstructionism and call for an end to the fighting in Syria.
“There is great unanimity among most of the Security Council on this resolution [to provide greater aid]. Russia is a holdout,” Mr. Obama told a gathering of French and U.S. journalists. “And Secretary [of State John F.] Kerry and others have delivered a very direct message to the Russians that they cannot say they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians. … [I]t is not just the Syrians that are responsible; the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution.”
“How can you object to humanitarian corridors? Why would you prevent the vote of a resolution if, in good faith, it is all about saving human lives?” he said.
As they directed criticism at Russia, athletes from the U.S., France and other nations around the world were competing in Sochi. The Olympics traditionally have led to something of a truce among nations, though there’s little sign that the frayed relations between Russia and its foes have been soothed at all by the spirit of international athletic competition.
Mr. Obama, Mr. Hollande and most other Western political leaders skipped the Sochi Games. The official U.S. delegation, including a number of prominent gay Americans, was widely seen as slap at Russian legislation targeting homosexuals. Analysts on both sides saw a Russian riposte in Mr. Putin’s choice of a former Olympic figure skater who publicly made a racist joke about Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to help light the torch in Sochi.
As the civil war worsens and U.N.-sponsored peace talks make little progress, Russia is standing firm in its longtime support of Syrian President Bashar Assad — who has used chemical weapons against his own people on multiple occasions — and in opposition to any resolutions condemning his regime.
“Our Western partners in the Security Council … proposed that we cooperate in working out a resolution. The ideas they shared with us were absolutely one-sided and detached from reality,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Interfax news agency.
He said the humanitarian resolution amounts to little more than “one-sided accusations aimed at the regime.”
Foreign policy observers say that while an international coalition negotiated a last-minute deal last summer with the Assad regime to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles, there simply aren’t many cards left to play if Russia continues to stand in the way of a full resolution of the crisis.
“I think Russia is going to do what Russia is going to do. Russia has its own interests. It is looking to accomplish the goals Russia feels are within its own geopolitical sphere. … It’s hard to say France would necessarily have any more leverage” than the U.S., said Robert Kron, a senior analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis who specializes in European defense and trans-Atlantic security.