- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2015

President Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin tried to downplay personal and policy tensions during a rare face-to-face meeting Monday in New York, but fierce disagreements bubbled to the surface in competing speeches to an audience of other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin differed most strongly on Syria’s bloody civil war, the best way to take on the jihadi Islamic State movement, and whether Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, should remain in power in any final political settlement. They also presented very different, perhaps incompatible, worldviews, with Mr. Obama painting the U.S. as the keeper of global order and Mr. Putin blasting America as a “single force of domination” that believes it can do as it pleases with no accountability.

The two leaders, who have not held substantive talks in more than two years, shared a chilly handshake for the cameras and dispensed with pleasantries before disappearing behind closed doors for their meeting, with a number of bodyguards on each side.

The meeting, scheduled for an hour, lasted about 90 minutes, and Mr. Putin emerged to give a relatively positive spin to the talk. He said the discussion with Mr. Obama was “surprisingly” constructive and frank and that Moscow did not rule out participating in the U.S.-led air campaign targeting the Islamic State group, which now controls wide swaths of Syria and neighboring Iran.

“We are thinking about it, and we don’t exclude anything,” he said, according to an Associated Press account, although Mr. Putin insisted that Russian ground forces would not be deployed.

“We can work together,” the Russian leader insisted.

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Mr. Putin also defended his remarks earlier in the day saying the Syrian crisis demanded a joint effort against Islamic extremists analogous to the “anti-Hitler” alliance that defeated Nazi Germany, saying the comparison was justified.

The U.S.-Russian relationship has deteriorated to near Cold War levels. Mr. Obama said the U.S. harbors no inherent ill will toward Russia but will hold Mr. Putin accountable for his support of Mr. Assad’s brutal regime in Syria and Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine.

He said Russia’s backing of the Syrian regime is standing in the way of peace — an outcome possible, Mr. Obama argued, only if Mr. Assad relinquishes power.

“While military power is necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria. Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully,” Mr. Obama said. “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”

The highly anticipated Obama-Putin interactions were among the highlights of an eventful day at the United Nations on a number of fronts, as leaders from around the world gathered for the annual summit.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cast his nation’s nuclear deal with the U.S. as a step toward a broader goal, hinting that his country seeks to join the world community and end its isolation.

“We want to suggest a new and constructive way to re-create the international order,” he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met with Mr. Obama at the White House last week, said his country will give $1 billion toward U.N. peacekeeping efforts, including those in Syria.

But Syria was the most divisive issue at Monday’s session, with Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin holding a de facto public debate about how to bring an end to a four-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands and fueled a refugee crisis that has strained Syria’s neighbors and now is flooding into Europe as well.

Mr. Putin said the West must change course and throw its support behind Mr. Assad, mainly because the Syrian leader is the only credible force for waging war against the militants of the Islamic State. Russia has unnerved U.S. officials in recent weeks with a greatly accelerated military supply campaign for Mr. Assad’s forces, and just this week it was revealed that Iraq has agreed to join Russia, Syria and Iran on an intelligence-sharing pact in the fight against jihadi groups in the region.

Coordinating the fight

One topic of the private Obama-Putin talks was to coordinate possible military action in the fight against the Islamic State.

The U.S. also is conducting military strikes against Islamic State fighters while trying to train moderate Syrian rebels who will battle the terrorists and Mr. Assad’s government. But as Mr. Putin noted, the effort to stand up a “moderate” Syrian fighting force against Mr. Assad and the Islamic State has proved a complete failure, leaving Mr. Obama with few options and allies in the effort.

“We believe it’s a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those who are bravely fighting terror face to face,” Mr. Putin said in his speech.

He also took broader shots at how the U.S. views its role in the 21st century.

“After the end of the Cold War, the single center of domination has emerged in the world,” he said. “Those who have found themselves on top of that pyramid were tempted to think that since they are so strong and singular, they know what to do better than others and it’s unnecessary to pay any attention to the U.N.”

Moscow and Washington have cooperated in some fields, notably the Iran nuclear deal and support for the government in Afghanistan, but turmoil in Syria and Ukraine and aggressive Russian moves against NATO allies along its western border have set the tone for bilateral tensions.

Aside from the back-and-forth between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin, domestic U.S. politics entered into the equation.

Mr. Obama also took clear shots at Republicans, charging that many are too quick to abandon diplomacy and rush toward war.

“Even as our economy is growing and our troops have largely returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we see in our debates about America’s role in the world a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace,” he said. “We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force, that cooperation and diplomacy will not work.”

In his own foreign policy speech Monday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican and likely the next House speaker, blasted the administration’s handling of world affairs. He specifically took issue with Mr. Obama’s agreement to meet with Mr. Putin and said the U.S. instead should pursue more aggressive economic sanctions against Moscow.

“The Obama administration has argued that providing defense weapons will only encourage additional Russian aggression. I disagree. It is weakness that fuels Russian aggression, not Western actions. The president’s response to Putin’s aggression should not be to sit down and talk but to consider serious sanctions that target him, the oligarchs who sustain his reign, and their cronies that help them avoid sanctions,” Mr. McCarthy said.

More broadly in the foreign policy arena, Mr. Obama conceded Monday that the U.S. and its international partners should have done more to maintain order in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi and must be prepared to assist other countries after a dictator falls.

But some analysts say Mr. Obama needs to rethink his strategy toward countries such as Syria or risk having more nations descend into chaos.

“It also seems all too clear if one looks at the patterns in the various metrics on Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan — as well as the overviews of the same patterns in Libya and Yemen — that all of these countries will face years of continued civil fighting and tension — or revert to authoritarian control — even if today’s Islamist extremists are defeated,” Anthony Cordesman, chairman in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Monday. “It also seems likely that the United States will not succeed even in creating effective host country forces, and the basis for a meaningful rule of law and civil security, unless it creates a far more effective civil-military strategy for helping each host country.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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